I have a question, for you, dear reader of this review: how many times in your life have you encountered a novel printed entirely in sans-serif font? I'm willing to bet the number you come up with is, if not "zero," then very low indeed—on the higher end, perhaps, if you read more self-published/POD fiction than I do. Reason Reigns is the first book I can ever recall reading in sans-serif font, and until now, I've given scant thought to the fact that the publishing industry adheres to a serif standard for its novels. I'm not sure how well the science supports the position that "serif fonts are easier to read," but it's certainly true that thanks to this nearly universal usage of them, I am used to serif fonts in my novels and conditioned to expect them. I don't expect novels to deviate from this, and when they do, it becomes that much harder to pay attention to the story, because all the while I'm worrying about the typeface. Thus, when I opened Reason Reigns and found a sans-serif bonanza, I was stymied.
That feeling didn't go away.
This is probably my fault. I somehow got it into my head that this was a book about the conflict between reason and irrationality, that it was set in a world at a time roughly analogous to our Enlightenment. Now that I think about it, the odd cadence and syntax of the back cover copy should have alerted me that this book is something else entirely. That being said, it took me until page 3 to realize exactly what was going on.
It should not come as a surprise, especially if you've read my reviews of The Sword of Truth series, that I'm not a fan of Objectivism, mostly because I find it rather silly. So when I realized that I had stumbled onto a thinly-veiled treatise on the subject, a hitherto-silent voice in my brain suddenly begun yelling, "Run away, Ben! Run away now!" Unfortunately, I am stubborn and hate to give up on a book, so I persevered.
This is the tale of my miraculous survival and inexorable defeat.
One good thing came out of my attempt at reading Reason Reigns: I have a lot more respect for Terry Goodkind as a writer. He might lay on the philosophy in large gobs of speeches, narration, straw men, and Mary Sues, but he can actually tell a story. Say what you might about the series, and especially its protagonist, some of the Sword of Truth books aren't that bad. They are at least readable.
The book opens—as far as I can tell, because the abstract diction made it difficult to follow what was happening—with a doctor refusing to provide medicine, which he invented, that is the only known cure for a deadly disease. His reason?
"As I will not be ruled by a single human being, neither will I forfeit my rights to the public. An emperor has no claim on me; neither does a poor man. Need is not a claim."
As the movie trailer voiceover might say, "In a world where doctors do not take the Hippocratic Oath … one man stands against all those who would dare live without paying him for the privilege!" And, let me be clear, this doctor, Ari Hugo, is supposed to be a good guy. We're supposed to be cheering for someone who sits around cackling about how awesome it is that those darn poor people haven't violated his right to make a profit off his medicine. Somewhere, the shade of Charles Dickens is having a conniption.
The next paragraph goes on:
Many appreciated Ari's principled stance which was in keeping with the individual rights enshrined in the island's Constitution. But some vowed to destroy him. Each thought, "Ari is a danger to our cause and to society. He must be stopped!"
And this is really where the problems with the book, in terms of its incoherent style, become apparent. In a lighter book that aims for the absurd, like Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, this type of melodrama might work. However, it is regrettably, gobsmackingly clear that Ilyn Ross and Reason Reigns are utterly serious. More's the pity.
It's also vague. It speaks of antagonists to Ari's cause as if they are a nebulous, unseen force that threaten him at every corner. And it tells me nothing about either Ari's supporters or his opponents, except that apparently in the world of Reason Reigns, if you disagree with someone, you are morally obligated to "destroy" them.…
Moving on to page 4, we arrive at my next "WTF" sticky note: a conversation between Lola, Ari's ten-year-old daughter, and a classmate:
"It's good to be humble."
"Everybody says so."
"I am not humble," Lola declared. "I respect and love myself. I always do my best because I don't ever want to feel low and small."
Lola's classmate realized that self-love was the hallmark of a good person.
This is the point where I realized the Objectivist subtext. We have a ten-year-old girl telling her classmate about how the best thing to do is "love oneself" and condemn modesty.
Reason Reigns employs flashbacks that are mercifully labelled in large letters at each chapter heading. It starts in the present in what is essentially a prologue, then it jumps back forty years and works its way back to the present day over about fifty pages. This type of narrative structure is fine, ordinarily, but the same problems I had comprehending the plot made it difficult to distinguish between any changes in the time period. Every chapter, every set of characters, every single conversation, sounds very similar. It's bland.
So a few chapters down the road, we get to learn how Ari married the woman who becomes Lola's mother. Let's watch:
The lady saw Ari enter the bookstore. His confident bearing caught her eye. She looked at him closely and felt attraction for the first time. He had an athletic, six-foot-five-inch frame, ruddy complexion, short, dark, wavy hair, and a strong face with a perfectly chiseled nose. The lady approached and engaged him in a conversation. She looked into his eyes. They conveyed a powerful intelligence. She fell in love.
"I am Ari. You must love reading. You know a lot about books."
"I work here. I am Glenda."
"Glenda, may I invite you for dinner?"
So Ari has the physique of a Greek god. Good to know. Oh, and following this conversation, Ari and Glenda get married after 4 days, and that's when they learn each other's last names.
No one talks like that. It's the exact opposite of natural conversation, at least among people who are older than five. Stilted dialogue is a big problem in Reason Reigns. Here's some more:
"Jaya is now forty-four years old." Ari remembered details. "Jon Ray is the policeman's son. He is twenty-one years old. Who is the bride?"
This is As You Know exposition in its rawest form. Ari is stating facts like he's some kind of computer program. He's not human. While I like to entertain the notion of "love at first sight" and wholly support authors who choose to include it in their fiction, Ari and Glenda's relationship tests even my credulity. They fall in love and get married after 4 days? With nary a fight or disagreement between them? It's not believable. You might even call it … unreasonable.
So yeah, I'm not a fan of Objectivism, but that is far from my only (or even my major) objection to this book. I should be able to read a book whose themes I disagree with and, if not enjoy it, at least finish it. I did it for The Sword of Truth. Unfortunately, beyond its questionable philosophical underpinnings, Reason Reigns just isn't a good novel. The prose is lacklustre in a phenomenal way; the dialogue is stilted; the characters are flat and unbelievable.
Reason Reigns fails at telling a story. A story is more than narrative, more than plot, and certainly more than theme. It is the expert combination of all of these ingredients, and more, into something that sways us both by reason and by emotion. One cannot successfully tell a story using logos alone. That makes for a dry, brittle thing. Adding ethos—which Reason Reigns sorely lacks—would help too, for strong characters aid one's rhetoric even as they bolster and support the story itself. Above all else, however, one cannot forget pathos. We have to feel for the characters, to sympathize if not empathize with their plight, to understand their sorrow and their suffering. Otherwise, without that emotional connection, the story is an empty husk.
I couldn't finish Reason Reigns. I made it through fifty-six pages, and then I decided I'd had enough. When I give up on a book, it's not because I dislike its plot (although that's usually part of the problem). No, I like to finish my books, and since I joined Goodreads I have only given up on three. When I give up on a book, it's usually due to an incompatibility between the way the book was written and the way I like to read. Often this isn't a reflection on the book's quality—I could not, for the life of me, finish Blindness, even though I know many people find it a poignant tale.
In this case, my rejection is a reflection on the book's quality.
Reason Reigns is a painfully earnest endeavour. Putting aside my reservations about Objectivism for a moment and treating this book only as evincing motifs of rationalism, there is potential here. I find the idea of reifying the forces of rationalism and anti-rationalism in the form of political entities really fascinating. But the "Big Idea" of a novel is never going to be sufficient for the novel to succeed. Success requires also a proportional level of skill. And sandwiched as she was in my reading between the consummate skill of Robertson Davies, China Miéville, and Ursula K. Le Guin—all of them masters of their craft—Ross' shortcomings in this area are all the more apparent.