BEIRUT: If you’re someone who never walks away from a book halfway through, there will be times when the end cannot come soon enough. One of the points working in the favor of Syrian author Leen Othman’s novella “Before the Dawn” is that it’s charitably abrupt. Its 30 chapters span just 91 pages. Sadly, the plot is too weak to sustain even a work of this length.
To be fair to Othman, he is only 17 years old and appears to be writing in his second language. The book is published by Olympia Publishers, and it’s probably on their shoulders that the blame for this train wreck of literary fiction should fall.
Billed as a spy thriller, the novella is in fact an old-fashioned revenge tale.
When her father is killed by a hit man (who he conveniently names in his dying minutes), the beautiful Russian heiress Alexandra, “not really a girly girl,” who has “always had a thing for action and danger,” vows to avenge his death.
Having skipped the “identify the killer” portion of her quest, she is helpfully informed by old family friend General Mashinov, or Uncle Dmitri, as Alexandra knows him, that the Russian government is assembling a crack team to find the killer and “extract as much info before turning him over.” The question of how to gain access to her target neatly answered, Alexandra decides to sign up as a soldier and get herself selected.
Masquerading as 24-year-old recent graduate Alex Vikov, with the help of Uncle Dmitri, she gets herself assigned to the pool of soldiers from which the crack squad is to be picked. She is the only woman, selected for reasons unknown along with dozens of men.
Here, she meets Nickolai, “tall, lean, milky white with short cropped charcoal dark hair,” and his friend Leonid. Leo immediately takes a violent dislike to her for no reason whatsoever, except perhaps in an attempt to inject some much-needed tension into the paper-thin plot.
The killer, a man named Steve Dervison, embodies the seven sins and then some. Prostitution, murder, shady black ops for international governments – he embraces it all. In his favor, he’s at least conscientious about hygiene, if his sideline in “money laundry” is anything to go by.
This is one of the primary problems with “Before the Dawn.” Errors – some amusing, others merely confusing – crop up in every paragraph.
Othman doesn’t appear to have grasped the purpose of a full stop. He prefers to punctuate his paragraphs with commas, stringing together unrelated phrases in the course of which tense, point of view and subject often mutate.
“The road was writhing into vast spaces of nothingness;” he writes, “a monolithic compound appeared twenty minutes ago on top of a hill but was still half an hour away.”
It is incredible that a U.K. publisher could have overlooked sentences like this one – whose mind-bending poetry is presumably accidental. Othman clearly knows what he wants to say. Unfortunately, he appears not to have been given the support of an editor who might have helped him say it.
The novella’s plot is strikingly reminiscent of a Mills & Boon romance. In fact, the publisher’s website provides “author guidelines” for a genre entitled “Intrigue,” which Othman might conceivably have referred to while penning “Before the Dawn.”
“Classic romance themes integrated with and integral to a suspenseful crime drama, mystery or thriller are critical,” according to the checklist.
“Crime-solving and a complex mystery are at the foundation of these novels.”
Alexandra doesn’t really have to solve any mysteries, merely stalk her prey. This is a less interesting and suspenseful process for the reader, who is given precisely zero plot twists to liven things up.
“The hero and heroine must work together in a high-stakes, fast-paced framework to resolve the mystery.”
Not so much.
Alex and Nick ostensibly work together but in reality Alexandra does everything alone – and at a glacial pace. More than halfway through the book she has only just been selected for duty after a 27-page training montage.
“The hero and heroine must share a palpable physical and emotional attraction throughout.”
This is the main point on which “Before the Dawn” falls down. Alex and Nick are described as having qualities (Alex is “brave,” “beautiful,” “elegant,” Nick “handsomely featured”) but neither of them possess any of the quirks or individual characteristics that help round a character out and make them human. Hollow themselves, their love story doesn’t ring very true.
Othman clearly has a fertile imagination, which may serve him well in future endeavors. If he wants readers to persist with his books, however, he might want to learn how to use a full stop or find another publisher.
Leen Othman’s “Before the Dawn” is published by Olympia Publishers and is available from local bookstores.