Review of Stephen North’s “Beneath the Mask”
Sergeant Alex Cray is dealing with a viral outbreak in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. He is wearing his MOPP suit, which is the self-contained, sealed suit we always see in the movies when there is an airborne virus or infection going around. The suit is hot, uncomfortable, but he is not supposed to take it off for fear of contracting whatever virus is out there. He and his fellow soldiers are not sure what is really going on, and if this outbreak has expanded beyond the borders of Tampa, or if it even started there in the first place. Soon, he decides that if he is forced to stay in the suit, life beneath that mask wouldn’t be worth living. But when he slips off that mask, he soon is forced to strip away other masks…the masks that allow him to remain civilized and normal in the regular world, but masks that are harder (or even impossible) to maintain in this new world, where a virus is only the beginning of the troubles he will face. The virus reveals a great many things about the survivors, and what they’re willing to do to stay alive and thrive in a new, barbaric environment. Time slips by and Alex discovers that he wants to remain human, and remain someone who can still look in the mirror at himself, but he will be forced to do ugly things to somehow pull that off.
Again, the virus is only the beginning, and I don’t think it is much of a spoiler to indicate that there is something far more diabolical at work in this story, something alien and yet strangely human. New doors are opened for Alex, and as he slips from one effort at saving those around him to another he finds himself more and more tormented. Tormented by beliefs that the human race is done for and that despite his best efforts, he is slipping away as well, even as he continues to live.
This is a story told in first person, present tense. It is a style used infrequently, and is rather challenging for someone to pull off. Stephen North, in this, his first novel, pulls it off just as he does in his later efforts with relative ease. Not everyone enjoys this style, and I will admit that in some ways it leaves me wanting as a reader. Not because of the quality of the writing, but because of the lack of information granted me as a reader. There are a lot of mysteries not revealed in the pages of this book because we only see the world that Alex sees, and in a world that is as clouded and dim as this one, one man’s vision doesn’t extend too far. The action is in your face and it is very easy to climb into the skin of Alex, as it were, but the character spends a great deal of his time getting knocked out of action and fading to black, only to wake up with everything changed around him, with his efforts to figure out what is going on only partially successful. This is a grand adventure with a few mysterious gaps in the tale that left me curious. I don’t like spoiling things for other readers, so suffice to to say, if you read this book carefully, you will have questions that Alex has that will go unanswered before the end of the tale. The author has indicated that since this was his first work, he wants to revisit it, and may explain some of the parts that were never detailed in a rewrite. If that is the case, I will be one of the first in line to check it out. Despite these few “gaps”, this is a good adventure tale, with an interesting sci fi slant on the traditional apocalyptic thriller. Stephen North writes virtually everything in first person, and is one of those rare people who also uses the present tense with ease…while the rest of us find it an incredibly difficult challenge to pull off.
Beneath the Mask can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Beneath-Mask-Stephen-North/dp/142592588X/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1317092890&sr=1-6