Today, I’ll be reviewing a book which was written when the author was 97 years old. Now that is an incredibly inspirational fact: never give up on your dream of getting published, for even if you think your moment has passed, it is never too late to write a book. But, is it possible to write a good book? Let’s answer that question by looking into The Stonehenge Gate, by Jack Williamson.
In a basement in New Mexico, four poker buddies and amateur adventurers who have discovered a dark mystery buried beneath the sands of the Sahara desert decide to do something about it.
In the deep Sahara, they find an ancient artifact that will change their lives and the world, forever… a gateway between planets that links Earth to distant worlds where they discover wonders and terrors beyond their wildest imagination.
Jack Williamson, the dean of science fiction writers, masterfully weaves an exciting tale that takes the friends to the far corners of the universe. While one leads an oppressed people towards freedom, another uncovers clues that could identify a long-dormant super-advanced civilization of immortal beings, and the key to the origin of life on Earth.
And unfortunately the answer is no, no it is not; or, if it is, then this book isn’t it. Sorry to stomp on this inspirational story so quickly, but the problems with The Stonehenge Gate are so large and so apparent that it is impossible to get through even the first chapter without getting the sinking sensation that this book really isn’t going to be all that good.
Partway through chapter one, you see, I ran face-first in to a huge, massive, steaming exposition dump as Ram, out of nowhere, began talking about how his grandmother “Little Mama” told him stories of being taken to hell by metal devils and stealing a key which let her escape through a temple of bones, and spoke of god-folk and the god-mark and the god-blood, and that his hereditary birthmark was the crown of worlds, and also gave him the key to the gate before she died.
Now, this is a massive pile of coincidences. That one of the four people to discover this long-lost interplanetary gate would just so happen to be the descendant of a human from another world who passed through the gate, and just so happen to be from a special bloodline bearing a symbol on his forehead that marks him as a messiah to the people of that other world, and just so happens to possess the magic plot trinket that allows him to activate the gate. This might just barely be able to work if the revelations were strung out so as to occur one at a time over the course of the whole novel, each discovery flowing naturally from the last so that we don’t think about how overall improbable it is. It would also help if they were presented as natural consequences of one another instead of just coincidences: for instance, if Ram had the Four Horsemen specifically looking for evidence of an alien gate in that area of the Sahara because of the stories that Little Mama told him, instead of just going “oh, by the way, that reminds me…” after it was discovered for entirely unrelated reasons. As it is, just placing this huge exposition dump in the first chapter and presenting it as a coincidence snaps the suspension of disbelief like a brittle twig beneath a tank tread.
You know what also might help? If the story was from Ram’s perspective. Will Stone narrates the story, but he never actually does much of anything. It’s Ram who heard stories of the world beyond the gate from Little Mama and learned the language of the natives, Ram who has the royal birthmark and special plot trinket, Ram who is the prophesied messiah come to liberate his people from slavery. That sounds like a main character to me. Not to mention, if Ram were the first-person narrator, his backstory could have been related naturally through flashbacks, reminiscences, internal monologues, and so on and so forth; anything other than him awkwardly giving his colleagues a long speech about everything his Little Mama told him which he never thought important enough to mention up until now.
Then there’s the direction the plot itself takes. When Lupe is abducted by one of the Hoppers, the “metal devils” from Little Mama’s stories, it’s only natural to assume that the story will be about the other three heroes tracking down where they took her and rescuing her. Instead, however, they get sidetracked onto a mission to liberate slaves on the world Little Mama came from. By the time they’ve sorted that out and gotten back to looking for Lupe, she’s already anticlimactically gotten free and gone on her merry way – and the anticipated battle with the metal devils never occurs. The book doesn’t really have a climax; just a very long, very disappointing denouement.
And then there are just the general plot inconsistencies; little things which I might have been willing to excuse or overlook if my suspension of disbelief had still been intact, but as it was just struck me as confirmation that the story wasn’t thought through very carefully. For instance, to name just one example, upon first traveling through the Sahara gate, the Four Horseman find an inhospitable landscape littered with the bones of African animals: impalas and lions and so forth. They conclude that these are animals which accidentally stumbled through the gate and were unable to survive in the harsh conditions on the other side – this right after establishing that the gate only opens for people who are carrying a special key like the one Ram inherited from Little Mama. Where, I wonder, did all those animals acquire keys?
There are hints of good ideas in The Stonehenge Gate, but they never amount to anything; and the story we do get is riven with far too many flaws to be enjoyable.
Final Rating: 2/5