2 out of 4 stars
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The theme of metamorphosis in fiction has always drawn the imagination of readers. In Thaddeus McGrath’s Gaelan’s War, metamorphosis takes on a physical, psychological, and supernatural import, as we follow the tale of one man’s personal “war” against forces beyond and within himself.
The struggle for control is at the core of Gaelan Kelly’s life. Bullied at a young age, Gaelan learns to fight from his father, an ex-Marine, who also drills into Gaelan the maxim that will forever be his guide: “Don’t lose control. You take control.” Of course, it’s all easier said than done. Gaelan’s recruitment in the Marines takes him to the Middle East, where he experiences his first real war and suffers the first of many horrible losses. Amidst enemy fire, with friends and allies dying all around him, Gaelan snaps and loses control. The destruction he wrought during this instance of blind rage continues to haunt him even as he returns home.
But home isn’t the safe and happy place it once was. Gaelan’s fiancée abandons him, and on a camping trip to the Shenandoah Valley, Gaelan and his parents are brutally attacked by an unknown beast. Gaelan survives despite his wounds, but he finds himself changed beyond his comprehension. Suddenly, he’s at war once more, pitted against a horde of monsters he never even knew existed as well as a tenacious order of hunters sanctioned by no less than the Vatican. The most crucial battle, however, is happening within, for Gaelan finally realizes what he has become—a mindless, murderous beast. A werewolf. Will Gaelan yield command to the monster within, or will he, as his father taught him, take control of himself and embrace his newfound power?
Part thriller, part paranormal fiction, but mostly the origin story of a swashbuckling, monster-hunting vigilante, Gaelan’s War takes readers on a journey of self-discovery, from the woods of Northern Virginia to a shrine in Japan, from a mysterious compound in China to a hiking trail in Canada. Aside from a lengthy first chapter, the book is briskly paced, with Gaelan’s foray into the supernatural world taking center stage for the remainder of the narrative. It’s a tale that will undoubtedly strike a familiar chord with fans of superhero stories. There’s a tragic beginning, the honing of acquired abilities and powers through rigorous training, and finally, the emergence of the hero in his full glory.
McGrath packs so many emotional moments in the narrative, constantly underscoring how painful and difficult Gaelan’s life is. Some readers may find these telenovela touches, poignant; others may feel that it’s overkill. That said, using the third person omniscient point of view is a very good choice, as first-person narration would have made Gaelan more melodramatic than he already appears. The dialogues, which are undeniably the book’s weakest point, do little to dispel this drama-queen-ish vibe around the titular character. Much of what Gaelan says or thinks to himself often sound so—there’s no other word for it—cheesy. With the author’s fondness for prolonged interjections (e.g., “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOARRRRGGGGGHHHHH!”), the redundancy of the statement and the dialogue tags (e.g., “GAELAN!” Jennifer called his name.), and the baffling use of all caps when they’re not required, readers might actually feel their ears hurt just by reading the book. One scene vividly captures all these writing anomalies, where a horrified Gaelan “looked up at the sky and shouted out, ‘WHY? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME? WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT TO TAKE FROM ME? WHAT ELSE DO YOU WANT?’”
While Gaelan is the indisputable star of the book, the story also includes a staggering ensemble of supporting characters that tend to bog down the narrative. Names can be quite hard to remember, and some characters almost seem indistinguishable from one another. Gaelan’s dad and Father Denny, a foul-mouthed priest who acts as Gaelan’s guardian, are set apart only by one thing: the former calls Gaelan “Bubba” while the latter calls him “Kiddo.”
McGrath seems to go out of his way to ensure that the world revolves around Gaelan. His hand feels far too heavy at times, creating circumstances that feel so contrived. In the story, Gaelan himself willfully creates situations where he’d be misunderstood, thereby reframing his outbursts as righteous anger and painting everybody else as spiteful, irrational, or at the worst, stupid. Readers who successfully connect with Gaelan’s character may see a damaged man struggling to feel whole again; those who do not may find Gaelan’s humor bland and his cockiness, off-putting.
Given his military background, McGrath handles the soldierly aspects of the book extremely well. His expansive knowledge of wine, cuisine, and foreign language adds texture to the narrative. A simple fact-check corroborates the geographical locations described in the book, suggesting that a fair amount of research went into the story. Finally, the ending is left open for a sequel, as though to say that we haven’t seen anything yet. Gaelan may have changed and evolved, but his war has just begun.
I rate this book 2 out of 4 stars. More subtlety, diversity, and creativity in conveying extreme emotions through the dialogues will add a star (Stay away from the caps lock key, PLEASE!). Fixing the black and white approach to characterization will further bump the rating. While I would normally deduct another star for the several typographical errors I spotted in the text (e.g., the title was misspelled), giving the book just 1 star seems unfair. 1.5 stars would be a better numerical description of my overall experience with Gaelan and his ongoing war.
Gaelan’s War will probably appeal to paranormal and/or superhero enthusiasts. McGrath excels in describing fight scenes, complete with copious amounts of gore, so if you don’t mind situations where a character gets “torn in two at the mid-section,” this book might prove to be an entertaining read.
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