Once a Hero

by Michael A. Stackpole
Bantam, pb, 513 pages, $5.99
ISBN: 0-553-56112-X

I have got to start reading cover blurbs again. I'd started pretty much ignoring them, but if I'd read the back cover more closely, the words of some anonymous publicity department copywriter would have warned me that this novel was written in "the best tradition of Robert Jordan and David Eddings."

Actually, that might not have scared me off this one. I'd heard some good word-of-mouth about Once a Hero, and the novel's premise sounded fascinating. When a culture faces a moment of ultimate crisis without a strong leader, they summon back from the dead their greatest hero of 500 years before. This is a rich material to work from: A hero whose strengths and flaws have all been magnified or forgotten over the centuries is forced to cope with a world which has changed dramatically, while everyone around him expects miraculous solutions to the problems they are afraid to face.

Unfortunately, Stackpole is unable to face up to the challenges posed by his idea. The plot is fundamentally flawed from the start, and riddled with structural defects which heighten the effects of those flaws, bringing the whole story crashing down around the reader's ears. The biggest problem is that the world hasn't changed in 500 years. People, technology, cultures, and regional alliances are completely indistinguishable between the two time periods. A few people have died, and a war or two has been fought, but otherwise things are pretty much the same. Think about it. Ten years ago, nobody had a modem or fax machine. Fifteen years ago, a state of the art computer was a 16k TRS-80 (with an add-on cassette tape player for memory). 75 years ago, there were still more horses than cars in this country. 150 years ago slavery was legal in states as far north as Delaware. 500 years ago, people still believed that Columbus had reached India. The Spanish Armada and Shakespeare were still 100 years away. It is simply not credible for a world - any world, no matter how fantastic - to remain static for 500 years.

The narrative style of the book serves to magnify this problem. The story alternates between chapters set in the present and in the 500-years-gone past. This has the effect of both a) constantly reminding the reader of the similarity between the two, and b) robbing the plot of any narrative continuity it happens to build up. Clunky writing doesn't help, either. The book is filled with awkward, inappropriate, often cloying language. For instance:

  • Spring had not yet brought blossoms to the flowers, but the shrubs and plants had all begun to produce new growth, blending new green with older green in a display that pleased her. Since the windows faced east, she new she would get the dawning sun, and it made her happy that she would start the day with the sun's warm caress.

The characters are unlikable too, but there's no real use beating on a dead horse. This should have been a good book. It bothered me tremendously to see a writer so utterly waste such a good idea.

This book really offended me... what a waste of a terrific idea. The review was carefully constructed so that no positive quotes could be pulled out of it.

First appeared in Horror magazine, April 1994.

Copyright © 2004 by Leigh Grossman