Book Review – Stephen Wallenfels’ “POD”

Book reviewed by Scott Roche

Let me start by saying that the best science fiction books aren’t about the science. They’re about the characters and what they go through. That’s true of most fiction, naturally. I think that in sci-fi some authors get lost in the techie bits. That doesn’t happen in POD by Stephen Wallenfels. He gets that it’s about building characters that we identify with.

What we have here is your basic alien invasion story. Floating spheres of doom (or “pearls of death” as Josh calls them and thus the title) arrive in the skies of Earth early in the morning, west coast time. Anyone unlucky enough to be caught outside or in a vehicle during that time disappears in a flash of blue white light. Josh, a sixteen year old in Prosser, Washington, and Megs, a twelve year old in LA, tell us the story from their perspective. I mean that literally as Wallenfels tells their story in first person, present tense.

Josh is trapped inside his house with his Dad and their dog. Food and water supplies dwindle and the alien presence encroaches further and further on their life. The tension, typical of any parent/teen relationship, is dialed all the way up and ends in a way that horrifies the young man. Meg finds herself alone in a hotel parking garage. She and her Mom were on the run from an abusive relationship. Meg’s Mom leaves for an early morning “job interview” and warns the girl to stay in the car. Thugs have taken over the hotel, and Meg sneaks around searching for food, water, and anything else she can use to stay alive while hiding from them.

I really enjoyed this novel. The short chapters, switching point of view every time, kept the tension ramped up. I loved the fact that a story usually told from an adult perspective was flipped on its head. I also liked the decision to let the older character keep his parent present while the younger is separated from hers. All of these factors also contributed to the thick plot. Like I said in the beginning though, it’s all about the characters.

The reader spends most of the prose locked inside the two protagonists’ heads. If they were weakly made or uninteresting then the book would have fallen apart. Meg and Josh were both strongly written and believable given their ages and struggles. The constant threat of the PODs and the unveiling of each layer of intrusion made for the perfect shadowy villain. The aliens were both a strength and a weakness in the book though. Their purpose and the area of their influence aren’t fully revealed, or perhaps not revealed at all, until late. I’m okay with that, since they aren’t intended to be more than a catalyst for the plot. When at least a side effect of their efforts (if not the complete reason for their being there) is revealed it was a bit of a let down.

Still, by the time the book wraps up, I want to know what comes next in the lives of these two. So all of Wallenfels’ efforts in building Josh and Meg does pay off. This is the first of a series, so I’m guessing that we do get to hear more. I for one will be looking out for it. I just hope that he keeps the PODs mysterious and the characters transparent.

I have one minor gripe. I really have no idea who the audience is supposed to be. Meg’s half of the book would be awesome by itself, as would Josh’s. There is a connection between the two stories, but it’s not necessary to either. Her half is perfect for the younger set, but his half is perhaps a bit too disturbing for them. On the flip side, if I were a teenage boy I would totally have been into what happened to Josh, but wouldn’t have cared about Meg as much. If you have younger kids, there are some graphic spots and some strong language. As an adult I was able to enjoy both. I give this a solid four stars.

Some creatures feed on blood and revel in the screams of their prey. Scott Roche craves only caffeine and the clacking of keys. He pays his bills doing the grunt work no one else wants to take, bringing dead electronics back to life and working arcane wonders with software. His true passion is hammering out words that become anything from tales that terrify to futuristic worlds of wonder. He’s also constantly seeking out talent for the publishing empire that is Flying Island Press. All that and turning three children into a private mercenary army make for a life filled with adventure.

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