Level 26: Dark Origins (Book)
Reviewed by Scott A. Johnson
Written by Anthony Zuiker with Duane Swierczynski
Published by Dutton Adult
In the world of Law Enforcement, there exists a scale on which to rate killers. The petty opportunists are considered a level one threat, increasing to what must be the most demonic of murderers, level 25. Level 25 has been the measuring stick, the type of killer that no one wants to encounter. Until now. A new classification has been created, level 26, and it contains only one man. He is ethereal as smoke, vicious to a fault, and worse, his attacks seem to be random. His name is Sqweegel.
Level 26: Dark Origins is the first novel of its type: A cyber-novel. While reading the story, readers are encouraged to log into the book's website, Level26.com, to get to movie files and other goodies that relate to the book. Included are bizarre images of Sqweegel, phone text messages, and strange bits that help to unlock the book. There's also an online community, a blog, and a discussion board.
The novel itself centers around a special unit of government agents charged with tracking down serial killers. In particular, they're after the worst of the worst, Sqweegel, who has been on an international killing spree for years, taunting the authorities and leaving absolutely no trace when he strikes. The agent who got closest to catching him, Steven Dark, washed out after the killer took out his entire family, and is just in the process of putting his life back together, when the agency ropes him back in.
While the concept is brilliant, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. To begin with, the novel isn't particularly well written. The characters of Dark and Sqweegel are well conceived, the other characters come across as paper-thin, many lacking any personality traits whatsoever. The book also suffers from its passive tone in that it fails to engage the reader on any real level most of the time, and just when it starts to pull the reader in, he's abruptly yanked back out by a note in the book that tells him to go to the website for a crucial piece of information. Also, the characters read like a list of clichés from every cop drama on television.
The book's main selling point, that it's an interactive novel, is also its biggest weakness. The professional-looking shorts that are a major part of the plot are well done (Dark broods, Michael Ironside chews scenery, Daniel Browning Smith is creepy as all hell as Sqweegel), and do fill in the plot points that the book purposefully leaves out. However, they also distract the reader from actually reading the book. It gets repetitive and annoying when, every twenty pages, the reader sees a message that says "to find out what happens next..." It's an admirable first effort and bridging the gap between the two mediums, but it just doesn't work.
What's most surprising about the writing is the pedigree of two authors. Anthony Zuiker is the creator of television volcano CSI while his cohort, Duane Swierszynski, has a ton of books and comic books under his belt. Reading through the book, its easy to see how the novel could play out as an impressive and engrossing arc to CSI or any of a number of television shows, but it doesn't work well in novel form. As to the website, it boils down to a social networking site (that looks a lot like MySpace) for serial killer aficionados, a discussion board, and articles on serial killers from the past.
On the whole, the effort is applaudable, but there's still a lot of growth the "digi-novel" has to do before it really catches its audience.
2 1/2 out of 5
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