A Darker Place by Laurie R. King
What the Back of the Book Has to Say:
A respected university professor, Anne Waverly has a past known to few: Eighteen years ago, her own unwitting act cost Anne her husband and young daughter. Fewer still know that this history and her academic specialty --alternative religious movements-- have made her a brilliant FBI operative. Four times she has infiltrated suspect communities, escaping her own memories of loss and carnage to find a measure of atonement. Now, as she begins to savor life once more, she has no intention of taking another assignment. Until she learns of more than one hundred children living in the Change movement's Arizona compound....
Anne presents herself to Change as the eager, pliable seeker, Ana Wakefield. But Anne soon realizes that this is no ordinary community and hers is no ordinary mission. For, far from appeasing the demons of her past, this assignment is sweeping her back into their clutches...and to the razor's edge of danger.
Why I Picked It Up:
It had a shiny gold sticker on the front that said "EXPORT EDITION: Not available in the U.S." Obviously this meant I must read it.
What I Think:
This book had been waiting for me on the shelf for months. I can't tell you how many times I pulled it three quarters of the way off the shelf, skimmed the back, did the stereotypical "hmmm", slid it back and ultimately pick another book for the week. To be honest, although the back of the book sounded halfway interesting, I highly doubt I would have ever actually grabbed it if not, on that particular day, I had not seen the giant shiny gold cover that adorned the cover: EXPORT EDITION: Not available in the U.S. It was a sign. Anything I couldn't do in America was going to have to happen.
This book is definitely what I call a "wannabe thriller." It has all the makings of a good suspenseful novel but somehow does not manage to tie its strings together to make a "can't put it down" novel. Not that it's horrible or anything; it just isn't what it wants to be.
We start off meeting Anne Waverly from the eyes of an outsider, appropriately. We see her tough, no-nonsense exterior and (hopefully) are intimidated by her. The first eighty or so pages are then devoted to Anne dealing with past demons and deciding whether she is going to take this latest undercover cult case, while unconsciously preparing herself to leave.
Perhaps this part is what I found the hardest to deal with. I can't tell you how many times I googled the author's name, trying to figure out whether this was part of a series or a stand alone. The way she only vaguely mentions past incidents really sounds like a story you should already know the details of. I fully support the idea of creating more backstory than you need in order to know more completely the character that you're writing but there are times you keep said backstory in your own mind. It all depends on the amount you let through the cracks; an inordinate amount creates more confusion of the reader than character depth.
So Anne or Ana or whatever her name is at any given time (the author spells it different ways to let you know what frame of mind she's in) drives to Arizona to infiltrate the Change compound. The book picks up a little bit around this point. New characters are introduced and once the plot places you within a cult that may or may not be threatening, it's hard not to be suspenseful.
Anne immediately bonds with a young girl named Dulcie who looks remarkably like her late daughter. Dulcie also has an older brother, Jason, whom Anne's feelings towards made me a little uncomfortable to read, to be quite honest. Her feelings for Dulcie and Jason and of course, the other children of the compound become the driving force of the novel.
The novel meanders through twists and turns as Anne finds out more and more about the different levels of hierarchy of the cult and the foundations of its theology. The whole thing takes a strange turn with a last minute change of scenery. New characters come out of nowhere and the climax comes almost out of the blue, as the page numbers grow higher and higher but the facts you're waiting for are yet to appear.
This is the biggest fault of the novel: the climax comes out of nowhere and leaves no time for a denouement. Now, this wouldn't be a problem if there were a sequel that could use the first twenty pages or so to clear up unanswered questions but the book ends so suddenly that it leaves you wondering what exactly just happened. Even an epilogue would do at this point.
Now, the novel isn't horrible in any sense of the word. It has a unique idea and creates, if not sympathetic, then interesting characters. There are just a lot more questions than answers in this book that leave the reader more confused than satisfied when finally setting it down.