I’ve already read several of Michael F. Stewart’s novels so I was delighted when I was asked to review The Terminals as part of the book’s blog tour. I might never have discovered Stewart’s books if I hadn’t been asked to review 24 Bones a couple years ago. I loved its rich fantasy world so I later readily agreed to review one of his Young Adult novels, Assured Destruction: Script Kiddie. I fell in love with the characters in that book and when I finished it I immediately bought the first one in the series to learn the background to the story. So, needless to say, I approached The Terminals with anticipation.
This is how the publisher describes the book: “Terminals solve crimes in this realm by investigating them in the next. Lt. Col. Christine Kurzow, fresh from a failed suicide attempt after she cost 11 of her soldiers their lives, is recruited into the covert unit of Terminals as a handler. It’s an easy sell. If she’s really determined to die, it’s a chance to give her death meaning. But her first case—convincing a monk to chase Hillar the Killer into the afterlife to find the location of a missing bus and the children it carried—has her wondering how to make a dead psychopath talk. Christine must follow the clues sent back by the shotgun-toting monk, who tracks Hillar through the seven deeps of hell, so she can find eleven kids before it’s too late. Maybe this time killing a man will give Christine a reason to live.”
The Terminals is a powerful, often chilling and thought provoking, novel. It’s fantasy but it raises real ethical questions about euthanasia.
Although they don’t lack humour, Stewart’s adult books are much darker and deeper than the ones he writes for young adults. One of the themes he often explores in his adult novels is different concepts of the afterlife. As he did in 24 Bones, in this book the author weaves a compelling story around a little known set of religious beliefs and, using his ability to create almost tangible characters and settings, draws the reader into an unusual and frightening afterlife.
The story is fast paced, gripping and tense. It’s not an easy read and I found the scenes where the children are held captive harrowing but, at the same time, I couldn’t put the book down. There is a brief respite in several tender scenes where characters face turning points in their lives, often saying goodbye to their past or to each other. I was particularly touched by the monk Charlie’s farewell to the monastery where he had spent his adult life. The book keeps the reader on edge until the end because when you think it’s reached the climax there’s still more. Everything seems to be resolved then another problem rears its head and you are gripped again. When it’s all over there’s still a couple unanswered questions, whetting the reader’s interest for a sequel.
One of Stewart’s fortes is his characters. They are complete: the reader sees, hears and smells them and empathises with their struggles. We know the psychic Attila by his coffee smell and the three elderly soldiers in the unit by their banter and never ending card game. The elderly soldiers are gutsy, funny and vulnerable. Readers admire their indomitable spirits and are moved by their frailty and vulnerability. The main character, Christine Kurzow isn’t your usual army officer. She’s tough, determined and suicidal. The reader roots for her as she fights to save a busload of kidnapped children and wonders until the end whether she will decide to live or die once her mission is completed. As Christine gets to know a couple other members of the unit, the psychic Attila and fellow female soldier Morph, we see the depth of their characters and are moved by the challenges they face. Stewart portrays all of this without verbose prose; often simple, well-chosen comments and actions by characters reveal all the reader needs to know.
The story flows between the two primary settings: a contemporary veteran’s hospital’s secret locked ward in the palliative care unit and the fantasy world of the Borborite afterlife. Like his characters, Stewart’s settings are vivid and tangible. He is able to create believable contemporary and fantasy worlds with equal skill. The worlds are never comfortable and may make you squirm as you absorb the graphic detail but it’s impossible not to get lost in them.
While cautioning that this book isn’t for readers who are disturbed by gritty stories, The Terminals is a novel I would recommend to anyone who enjoys a gripping, thought provoking story. And now, as I’m wait for The Terminals’ sequel, I’m going to skip back to Stewart’s Assured Destruction series and read Book 3 which was also recently released.
About Michael F. Stewart:
Michael F. Stewart is the author of the Assured Destruction series, which sprawls across 3 books, 2 websites, 1 blog, 7 Twitter accounts, tumblr, Facebook, and 6 graphic origin stories. He likes to combine storytelling with technology and pioneered interactive storytelling with Scholastic Canada, Australia and New Zealand’s, anti-cyberbullying program Bully For You. He has authored four graphic novels with Oxford University Press Canada’s award winning Boldprint series. Publications of nonfiction titles on Corruption and Children’s Rights published by Rubicon Publishing as well as early readers with Pearson are all forthcoming in 2014 and 2015.
For adults, Michael has written THE SAND DRAGON a horror about a revenant prehistoric vampire set in the tar sands, HURAKAN a Mayan themed thriller which pits the Maya against the MS-13 with a New York family stuck in the middle, 24 BONES an urban fantasy which draws from Egyptian myth, and THE TERMINALS—a covert government unit which solves crimes in this realm by investigating them in the next. This series has already been optioned for film and television. Herder of four daughters, Michael lives to write in Ottawa where he runs free writing workshops for teens and adults.