I picked up The Beautiful Land by Alan Averill because its plot summary piqued my interest:
Takahiro O’Leary has a very special job…
…working for the Axon Corporation as an explorer of parallel timelines—as many and as varied as anyone could imagine. A great gig—until information he brought back gave Axon the means to maximize profits by changing the past, present, and future of this world.
If Axon succeeds, Tak will lose Samira Moheb, the woman he has loved since high school—because her future will cease to exist. A veteran of the Iraq War suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Samira can barely function in her everyday life, much less deal with Tak’s ravings of multiple realities. The only way to save her is for Tak to use the time travel device he “borrowed” to transport them both to an alternate timeline.
But what neither Tak nor Axon knows is that the actual inventor of the device is searching for a timeline called the Beautiful Land—and he intends to destroy every other possible present and future to find it.
The switch is thrown, and reality begins to warp—horribly. And Tak realizes that to save Sam, he must save the entire world…
There are several elements in that synopsis that would usually get me interested in checking out a novel: parallel timelines, PTSD, a multi-cultural cast. The novel also won the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. All of this meant I had fairly high expectations for this debut. In the end, some of those were met, and some of them weren’t. My opinion boils down to just a a few words: amazing characters, ludicrous plot.
Starting with the positive: The Beautiful Land has two amazing protagonists. Takahiro O’Leary is basically a survival expert, one of those Man vs. Wild-type guy who gets dropped in the most inhospitable corners of the world with a handheld camera and then documents how he survives and makes it back to civilization. He’s scrawny and incredibly high-energy and almost obnoxiously cheerful. He’s a bit manic, really—think a half-Japanese, half-Irish combination of Miles Vorkosigan and Bear Grylls.
Even though the novel starts out with a suicide attempt by Tak, he’s simply a lot of fun to read about. Before he manages to complete the act, he gets offered a job to explore parallel timelines for Axon, and so the entire crazy plot of The Beautiful Land gets started.
Main character nr. 2 is even better. Samira Moheb is a former military translator who is back in the U.S. after experiencing the horrors of war in Iraq. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder to such a degree that she can barely function. The chapters written from her point of view are, at times, simply stunning. With Samira Moheb, Alan Averill somehow has written one of the most convincing depictions of PTSD I’ve ever read. She’s a memorable character and easily the best part of this novel.
Also impressive: the author gradually reveals more and more details of Tak and Samira’s past. There are many more experienced authors who could learn a thing or two from the way Averill does this: he manages to make these characters’ youth and family history part of the novel in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story. It’s meaningful and lovely and occasionally even touching.
But, then, unfortunately, there’s the actual story. The plot of this novel is, at times, simply silly. There are a few twists that are so improbably convenient they just don’t make sense. The Beautiful Land starts off, well, beautifully: interesting characters and above-average prose. However, once the plot really gets going, it turns into a B movie or, occasionally, something that feels like it might be a parody of a B movie. A big part of the problem is the main villain, who is so spectacularly and utterly evil that it feels as if he just wandered out of a Saturday morning cartoon and into this novel.
Reading The Beautiful Land, I kept going back and forth: the plot is utterly ridiculous, but the characters are awesome, but the plot is ridiculous, but… It’s hard to process that the same author could write a character like Samira and then put her through this plot. If I hadn’t been so invested in the characters, I would have probably given up on the novel around the halfway point. I ended up giving the novel three stars on GoodReads, splitting the difference between an “excellent” rating for characterization and, well, I’m sure you can guess the rest.
So. I’d recommend The Beautiful Land if you don’t mind reading the type of story in which only one person could become the key to the crazily over-the-top evil villain’s master plan because, well, that’s just how it goes in these Ed Wood-like “we have to save the girl or reality as we know it will be destroyed” adventures. I’d recommend The Beautiful Land for Samira, and to a lesser degree for Tak, but only if you’re prepared to feel charitable about an utterly loony plot and a villain who’s impossible to take seriously. And, I’d recommend keeping an eye on Alan Averill, because, despite the flaws in The Beautiful Land, there’s a spark of talent here that promises great things for the future.
(One final note: Alan Averill needs to get himself a Wikipedia page. The lack of disambiguation on this one may lead to some confusion.)