Review: “Elixir,” Ted Galdi

Pros: Great use of detail; strong characters
Cons: Doesn’t match the advertised genre; erratic fidelity of detail; some stereotyped characters
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Review book courtesy of the author

 

Sean Malone may very well be the smartest person in the world. As a 14-year-old that’s a huge burden, and one that pretty much ruins his life. The NSA uses his genius to decrypt the communications of some high-profile criminals, and innocent people get caught in the crossfire. A threat to Sean sends him into hiding in Europe with a new identity, and he sheds all of the trappings of genius, doing his best to blend in.

Unfortunately for him, life has other ideas. His girlfriend comes down with a fatal illness. Sean realizes he’s going to have to find the cure himself if he wants her to live–but this pits him against a huge corporation with a willingness to break the law. Soon Sean is running for his life while racing against time to save the love of his life.

 

I expect certain things from a book I’ve been told is a bio-thriller. I expect thrills, and most of Elixir is a slow character study; the thriller aspect doesn’t come in until very late in the game. I also expect the bio- to be a part of the careful plotting; instead it’s more of a hand-waved magic. The book is a good character study, but the it isn’t at all what I thought it would be from the description.

Sean’s vast intelligence is used as a superpower. It takes him mere hours mired in his own thoughts to solve earth-shaking world-altering problems. There’s no tension in this at all, no tiny hint that Sean might not succeed. He reads a mere four documents regarding a huge pharmaceutical issue–ones that sound like high-level overviews–and immediately sees things “deep in the details” that no one else had. (What details? He hasn’t gotten to many yet!) While he’s depicted as being able to teach himself things at incredible rates, he doesn’t even bother when it comes to this. If the problems can be solved without any background in genetics, medicine, and pharmacology (all depicted as relevant), then why does anyone go to school for those things?

One of Galdi’s strengths is his use of deep levels of detail to paint a thorough picture. Unfortunately this sets up an expectation that all details will be handled with the same careful touch, and when something is hand-waved it really stands out. For instance, when the characters go to the NSA the author meticulously details the buildings they’re visiting. However, the characters get into the NSA without going through a single checkpoint, without showing their IDs once, and without any kind of escort. After carefully detailing the various levels of officials Sean deals with, he’s then shown as being able to get the Secretary of Defense on the phone in minutes just because he’s having a crisis of conscience. I can’t even remotely buy into that. He then attempts to extort the secretary with threats and is still walking around as though nothing happened several days later.

That brings me to another problem. Part of the necessary setup to get Sean into hiding involves the person he’s threatened going to great lengths to illegally set him up. However, after making his threats there’s just no need to work up some complicated plan to take him out of the picture. He could already be arrested for extortion and making threats against the Secretary of Defense. Seeing as the government has already been depicted as happily doing things it shouldn’t (Sean has no adult family member present when dealing with them, and as a minor is made to sign papers he cannot legally be required to sign), there’s just no reason for them to use complicated schemes to deal with him.

There are many examples of details that are hand-waved away or that make no sense. After Sean is exposed at length to an infectious disease, no one tests him for the disease. This despite the fact that a lot of detail goes into his girlfriend’s medical quarantine and isolation, which again sets an expectation of a greater realism. A character who’s been horrifically damaged by an illness to near-death seems just fine less than a week later. A priest puts on a biohazard suit with no help or supervision despite the fact that he’s explicitly never even seen one before. Apparently all Sean has to do in order to get rare chemicals from a university is find a sympathetic professor and offer to take full responsibility for them.

Galdi uses his intense detail to paint a deep level of characterization, which is a fantastic strength. Unfortunately some of those lovingly-drawn characters are lovingly-drawn stereotypes. When you have to explicitly say that your Native American character doesn’t have long hair and doesn’t wear ‘tribal attire’ instead of simply diving into describing what he is like, you’re having stereotype problems. (In that case the character simply falls into a different stereotype of the dead-eyed psychopathic professional ‘problem-solver’.) Also, in the interests of keeping language interesting things sometimes get a little weird, such as a professor “scampering” across a room.

Elixir is more science fantasy than science fiction–in other words, science is portrayed as magic and superpowers rather than detailed actual science. Some of the book’s quirks would make sense if it was an adolescent wish-fulfillment story, in particular Sean’s ability to gain the attention of powerful figures at a moment’s notice, his ability to put one over on adults, and his intelligence superpowers. Unfortunately I don’t get the impression that’s what it’s meant to be, and the gorgeous level of detail implies something with much more realism.

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