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Reviewed by Simon Petrie (this review was first published in January 2008)
Imposter, the first novel by Queensland writer Katherine Anderson, is a SF thriller set partly in New York and partly in the fictional North Queensland coastal community of Howards Hill.
This is the first piece of fiction I’ve encountered by Anderson. Her writing style is economical and clear, and the book has a rapid and reasonably steady pace. It’s a style that doesn’t place too many demands on the reader, nor does it disappoint. In fact, the unobtrusive polish of the text, coupled with the apparent absence of evidence for previously-written fiction by Anderson, such as web mentions of short stories, has me wondering whether ‘Katherine Anderson’ herself is an imposter, in the sense that this may be a pen name chosen by someone who’s already published in other genres under another name. Such a ploy would be in keeping with the tone of the book; but, in thinking this, I’m probably just being paranoid. That too, would be in keeping with the tone of the book… but, in any case, Imposter manages to avoid most, if not all, of the pitfalls suffered by first-time novelists.
Arthur Schultz is a reporter for a New York-based newspaper. He’s led an uneventful existence until the afternoon he returns home early from work to find his wife in flagrante delicto with her lover. Separated, and lacking a purpose, Arthur is subsequently asked to write a newspaper story on a bizarre cult, the ‘Children of the Future’, who appear to exert a tenacious hold on their followers. What Arthur learns on infiltrating the cult gradually convinces him that the ‘Children’ are up to something far stranger, and more sinister, than he could ever imagine.
Arthur’s story is interleaved (for the book’s first half, at least) with the diary entries of Jacob Brown, a high school student in a small Queensland town which has suddenly become the killing ground for an elusive serial killer. Jacob’s family is visited by a mysterious ‘uncle’, Robert Cartel, who uncovers Jacob’s latent ability in telepathy; an ability which unfolds tentatively but develops into a near-cinematic ability to follow crucial events occurring elsewhere in Howards Hill. Jacob’s diary entries cease suddenly, and it is up to Arthur (who by this time has learned that Jacob is in some important way connected to the cult) to investigate Jacob’s subsequent fate.
While the writing is admirably clean-lined, there are some problems in the book’s construction. The calendar dates for Jacob’s diary entries are inconsistent: “Monday, June 2” is followed by “Tuesday, June 5”. The text suggests that Saturday June 21st occurred in 1991, then again in 1998, whereas in truth this day/date occurred in 1997 (and, due to the action of leap years, preceded this most recently in 1986). We’re given to understand that the events in Jacob’s diary all fit within a span of four weeks, in which case some (and, I suspect, all) of the dates are incorrect, because the diary entries are subsequently fixed to 1991. On another front, I found it odd that someone in New York would have hired a Holden Accord rental car – Honda Accord, surely? And my understanding is that it’s not principally the force of gravity which limits insect size on Earth, but the method of respiration by absorption of oxygen through the exoskeleton.
I would take issue with other, more fundamental aspects of the plot, as well. I’m not a believer in telepathy, and didn’t really find its presentation here entirely credible. I also couldn’t fully accept the nature of Arthur’s foes within the cult, and I found implausible Anderson’s arguments regarding parallel (biological and social) evolution on other planets. However, I’m prepared to concede that these are essentially personal reactions on my part, and readers less concerned with scientific authenticity might well avoid the suspension-of-disbelief problems which I encountered. I should say also that, even though I didn’t agree with some of the crucial plot elements, I still found Imposter an entertaining and reasonably engaging read, with well-drawn and logically consistent characterisation (although from a female author, I’m surprised at the predominance of male major characters). The action sequences – there are several – are executed without overkill and work well, though I’m not sure that a weapons or combat specialist would find them fully believable. More accomplished is Anderson’s presentation of Arthur’s reactions to the increasingly apparent danger in which his actions have placed him, and those around him. Arthur’s mental state, a key focus of the story, is handled convincingly, and more generally the story’s psychological overtones – the seamlessly-woven background on cult indoctrination, the interaction between Arthur and Swanson (his therapist) – are probably the most satisfying aspect of the book. You might say, further, that Imposter’s strengths as a thriller – tight plotting and consistent pacing, with credible treatment of paranoia – compensate for its arguable shortcomings as science fiction.
Overall, I’d categorise this as a solid and consistent first novel, which those drawn towards the mainstream/thriller fringe of SF might well find rewarding. Anderson undeniably writes well, and it will be interesting to see where she goes next. There is, it appears, a second novel due out soon from a different electronic publisher. While there are aspects of Imposter that I wasn’t entirely happy with, I’m nonetheless impressed by Anderson’s ability to construct a coherent and intriguing tale. In the end, Imposter is a reasonably convincing SF thriller, and Anderson a writer of considerable promise.