Pros: Gripping beginning, strong premise, some fascinating characters
Cons: Falls short of its promise; doesn’t hold together; confused
Rating: 3 out of 5
For about the first two-thirds of Robert Masello’s Bestiary I thoroughly enjoyed every twist, turn, and detail. Unfortunately, the last third just didn’t live up to that promise.
Carter and Beth have recently moved to LA with their son, Joey. Carter’s about to make the paleontology find of the century, and Beth’s about to receive a commission to work on an illuminated manuscript—a bestiary of mythical creatures—the likes of which she’s never seen. Through the manuscript’s owner, a mysterious Mr. Al-Kalli, Carter and Beth’s work will cross in most unexpected and mind-bending ways.
Captain Greer is the soldier who took on a little side-job in Iraq, spiriting the bestiary away from its resting place and back to Al-Kalli. Now he’s returned to LA, permanently handicapped, out of work, and constantly high on drugs. His friend Stan, who sets up burglary ‘jobs’ for him, is getting involved with some very volatile white supremacists and wants to drag him in too. But Greer has a better idea: now that he knows Al-Kalli is in town, surely he can find a way to turn that to his advantage.
The premise is wonderful. There are so many delightful details regarding the bestiary, the tar pits where Carter works, the museum Beth inhabits, and so on. Even Greer, who in many ways is fairly repulsive, manages to elicit empathy as a character—he has much more depth than one might expect, and particularly in comparison to Stan he isn’t the story’s villain. It would have been easy to paint a wounded vet in one of two stereotypes, handicapped hero or shell-shocked druggie, and Robert Masello manages to make him much more interesting than that. However, several side characters don’t fare nearly so well.
It seems as though many of the problems in this book stem from some sort of confusion as to what the main plotline is, who the main characters are, and even what kind of book it is. I’ll try to explain.
The book seems to have some trouble deciding what world it’s set in: i.e., how paranormal the world is vs. how normal, and so on. For the first two-thirds of the book or so it wasn’t clear that there was anything paranormal involved in this book at all, and if there was, it seemed to point to the plotline involving the Bestiary and Al-Kalli’s secrets. Instead, that plotline turned out to be not at all paranormal (as far as I could tell), while a side plot that seemed normal did. In a world where the paranormal is possible you’d also expect the vast majority of it not to seem so bloody normal as it does in this book. The whole thing just felt… confused. By the time the paranormal did show up, it really threw me off my stride.
The plotline of Carter’s discovery in the tar pits ends up feeling tacked-on. It never gets integrated into the rest of the plot in any way and ends up being almost window-dressing.
Several characters that seem like they’re meant to be important to the story in some way—even as side characters—vanish partway through the book and don’t return, such as Greer’s physical therapist (to whom he’s awkwardly attracted) and one of Carter’s assistants at the dig.
There’s no mention anywhere toward the beginning of the book or on the cover that this book is a sequel to anything. However, partway through a supernatural entity conveniently shows up to make everyone nervous, imply an explanation as to why baby Joey acts weird, and then propel the plot along, finally disappearing again. This is done with so little explanation that if you haven’t read the prior book you’ll feel lost. Only at the end of the book does the author leave a note saying that if you’re “curious” about that character, you should read his other book, Vigil.
And finally, what started out as a very intricate and fascinating plot involving the translation of an ancient manuscript, the history of a very odd collection of beasts, and an extremely old Middle Eastern family was turned, for the last third of the book, into a very standard thriller-monster-movie climax. If that’s the kind of book it had been for the first two-thirds that might have felt appropriate, but as it was, it was a let-down.
Ultimately, Bestiary is loaded up with a bunch of fascinating plots, people, and things. However, it feels like the author lost track of them, got overwhelmed with the task he’d set himself, and wasn’t able to tie things up satisfactorily.