Monday, April 21, 2014

Ocean of Fear: A geeky thriller that I could not put down

Author Helen Hanson describes her writing as “thrillers for geeks”

There’s a certain geek factor in all thrillers. Many thriller authors write loving descriptions of cars, guns, bullets, bombs, or bullets. I have read several descriptions by different authors about how a bullet bounces around inside a skull and precisely what it does to a human brain.

But I actually enjoyed the geek factor in Ocean of Fear. Hanson made the geeky-technical aspects integral not only to the plot, but also to one of the main characters. 

What makes a good thriller?

To make a thrill, an author needs to build tension. The readers have to care enough about the characters and believe the situation enough to say “Oh no, don’t do that! You shouldn’t have done that!”

When the tension snaps, the author has to surprise you. It’s not a thrill when you know what’s going to happen

There are a lot of those moments in Ocean of Fear.

Plot points

Like any good thriller, Ocean of Fear begins with a murder. Baxter Cruise (character names are not this author’s strong suit), a grad-school dropout turned email spammer, discovers UC Santa Cruz professor, Dr. Allesandra Bisch, dead in her office. Baxter’s employer, Professor Sydney Mantis, had given Baxter a flash drive and asked him to give it personally to Dr. Bisch, as well as to look after his, Mantis’s dog while he suddenly had to leave town for a few days.

The mystery is not who killed Dr. Bisch — the author introduces the assassin in Chapter 2. The mystery is why, and the tension rises as the main investigator, FBI Special Agent Claudia Seagal, puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and as Baxter gets pulled deeper and deeper into the trap laid for Dr. Mantis. 

Hanson knows how to ramp up a story by taking it in unexpected directions. It turns out that the professors, Bisch and Mantis, were developing robotic submarines for drug dealers to use to smuggle their product into the US. Special Agent Seagal. This is the geek factor: Hanson tells us enough about robotics and remote control to make the story work, so that we understand that this story just could not happen without this technical detail. However, she never gives too much, never bores us with technical factoids that we don’t need. Every word is a plot point.

Engaging and critical backstories

Despite their unfortunate names, the characters have interesting backstories. Hanson is also skilled at not drowning the reader in long information dumps, but revealing details about Claudia’s deceased husband, Baxter’s dead parents, Mantis’s habit of seducing students, even the bad guys’ back stories as they’re needed. Readers begin to feel for the characters, to hope that their plans work out. The sibling rivalry between the two main baddies really rang true.

Two weaknesses

There are only two weaknesses with this story. First, there are the character names. The author shows us in Chapter 1 that “Dr. Bisch” is an intentional joke, but then there are all the animal names: Dr. Mantis, Agent Seagall. I don’t know if this was an intentional gag, but while there are some humorous moments in the book, it’s not overall a comedy. It’s a thriller that takes engaging, believable characters on an exhilarating ride to an explosive and satisfying conclusion.

The other weakness was the cover. It’s professionally done, but maybe a little too clich├ęd. It gave away too much of the story, instead of making me want to open the book.

But those are minor flaws. In the end, Ocean of Fear is a good, satisfying read from a skilled author.

4 *.

Visit Helen Hanson's website and blog and learn about her books.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Scott! I promise to quit looking in the obituaries for character names :) All the best!