book review: the storm king

The Storm King by Brendan Duffy
Ballantine Books, 400 pp.
Published February 6, 2018

The Storm King

DISCLAIMER: I received a free digital ARC of this book from Ballantine Books via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Summary (via Goodreads): Nate McHale has assembled the kind of life most people would envy. After a tumultuous youth marked by his inexplicable survival of a devastating tragedy, Nate left his Adirondack hometown of Greystone Lake and never looked back. Fourteen years later, he's become a respected New York City surgeon, devoted husband, and loving father.

Then a body is discovered deep in the forests that surround Greystone Lake.

This disturbing news finally draws Nate home. While navigating a tense landscape of secrets and suspicion, resentments and guilt, Nate reconnects with estranged friends and old enemies, and encounters strangers who seem to know impossible things about him. Haunting every moment is the Lake's sinister history and the memory of wild, beautiful Lucy Bennett, with whom Nate is forever linked by shattering loss and youthful passion.

As a massive hurricane bears down on the Northeast, the air becomes electric, the clouds grow dark, and escalating acts of violence echo events from Nate's own past. Without a doubt, a reckoning is coming--one that will lay bare the lies that lifelong friends have told themselves and unleash a vengeance that may consume them all.

My thoughts: Does anyone else have "pet tropes" when it comes to the stories they read and watch? General plots, character types, or relationships that guarantee you're going to pick up a book? And are "pet tropes" a promising future discussion topic? Discuss. One of my pet tropes is when a character with a dark past returns to the place where it all began, only to have all hell break loose. The Storm King fits into that outline perfectly. I spent half of the book trying so hard to love it, to find a redeeming characteristic that would get me past whatever wasn't working in my head.

Then I finally realized why I didn't like it and everything clicked into place, just not as positively as I'd hoped.

Nate McHale, the central figure whose perspective dominates the narrative, is monotonously unlikable. I don't need the main character of every book I read to be a Good PersonTM. In fact, characters who never struggle with doing the right thing are often boring, particularly when playing a central role, because that kind of conviction just isn't realistic to me. Yet for the majority of The Storm King Nate remains a self-centered, callous, and emotionally distant man whose attitude is primarily justified by a childhood tragedy. There is little development of this mindset within the text itself, with most of the variation coming as degrees of anger. The fault with Nate isn't his dark nature; instead, a lack of dynamism until the final 100 pages prevented me from ever feeling invested in him.

The supporting cast fares a bit better, though we hear from them so little in comparison to Nate that it does little to cut through the monotony. By far the most intriguing character is the young woman whose body is found near Greystone Lake. Sidelined by Nate's preoccupation with himself, she functions as barely more than a human guilt trip, another woman whose main contribution to a plot is that she died. It's a forgivable plot device when bolstered by an otherwise outstanding novel, but serves only as another shortcoming here.

I also did not enjoy Duffy's prose and found it littered with sophomoric, and sometimes downright strange, metaphors. Examples include:

There was a menagerie of suffering in the cages of Nate's soul, and this town held all the keys.

In the carousel of disaster, Nate knew that everyone gets their turn.

Not every attempt ended in disappointment however. Lines like, "The browns of rot and greens of growth shaded the house into the palette of the forest as smoothly as a bird's nest," suggest genuine talent that would benefit from a firmer hand at the editing stage. The feeling of loose editing extends to the book's structure as well. It jumps frenetically between perspectives, time periods, and formats from beginning to end, crossing the line from an engaging variety to sloppiness.

An excellent setting is what works best for The Storm King, which takes place exclusively in a small community in upstate New York. Fringed by woods and abutting an eerie lake, the town's spooky aura only grows as a hurricane barrels up the East Coast. The storm parallels Nate's increasing desperation and rising anger, the rain-heavy clouds and his temper both bursting forth with spectacular energy in the finale. A too-neat ending that brushes away inconvenient loose ends is more in line with the novel's beginning, but for a brief time in the third act Duffy shows off a great knack for thrills. It isn't quite enough to salvage The Storm King, but it just might presage a mystery author on the rise.


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