Friday, 29 May 2015

Book Review | Day Four by Sarah Lotz

Four days into a five day singles cruise on the Gulf of Mexico, the ageing ship Beautiful Dreamer stops dead in the water. With no electricity and no cellular signals, the passengers and crew have no way to call for help. But everyone is certain that rescue teams will come looking for them soon. All they have to do is wait.

That is, until the toilets stop working and the food begins to run out. Then, when the body of a woman is discovered in her cabin, the passengers start to panic. There's a murderer on board the Beautiful Dreamer... and maybe something worse.


Got an appetite for good food? Hungry for some unforgettable fun?

If you answered yes to those questions, then Foveros Cruises is beside itself with excitement to invite you to spend a week on the sparkling seas aboard The Beautiful Dreamer—a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to know North America's number one psychic, Celine del Ray.

That's not all this holiday has to offer, either:
Soak up the sun during one of our many exciting excursions, where you can shop till your drop at our many concessions, snorkel in turquoise seas, horse-ride along beautiful beaches, and enjoy al fresco dining on our fabulous private island. 
Sounds like a fine way to spend a few days, doesn't it? Folks: don't be fooled. The Beautiful Dreamer might be a luxury liner, but Day Four describes a holiday from hell—and not just because of the bad buffet.

The first three days of the cruise are "relatively uneventful." (p.3) The ship makes a few stops in a few choice spots. The holidaymakers get to stretch their legs. They're well fed, and entertained in the interim. The WTF only hits the fan on day four, when a fire ravages the engine room, stranding The Beautiful Dreamer at sea.

The next thing the three thousand-some souls aboard know, the power goes out, taking access to the internet with it—and for some reason the radio also stops responding. Essentially, every thread connecting the ship to the world as we know it is suddenly severed.

For us, that's where the fun really begins. Not so much for the staff and the passengers. whose run of bad luck has hardly started. See, in addition to the aforementioned disaster, a dead body is discovered on day four, and foul play is probable... though security is keen to keep the disturbing details of the girl's demise quiet, lest the news make a literally shitty situation (because of course there've been problems with the sewage system too) still shittier.

That same day, people start seeing things—like little boys where no boys could conceivably be—and to make matters worse, a mist of sickness seeps into the ship. And could it be simple coincidence that Celine del Rey's cack-handed cold reading takes on a deadly new dimension on day four, or might there be more to her unexpectedly precise insight than meets the eye?

So: "a psychotic passenger, a dead girl, the norovirus, and an engineer who was borderline catatonic. How much more shit can we add to the pile?" (p.120) wonders The Beautiful Dreamer's doctor Jesse Zimri, a recovering drug addict. The ship's psychic must be psychic or something, given how quickly she answers Jesse's question—with a warning that "things are going to get a lot worse before they get better." (p.175)

She's telling the truth, too. Something supernatural is afoot—something akin to the events that befell the families affected by Black Thursday. Before long, there's evidence aplenty of... a strangely playful presence:
The hand that covered the camera lens. The crew who were convinced the dead girl was haunting the ship. The reports from some of the Indonesian and Filipino staff about the Lady in White floating through the guts of the vessel, taunting passengers and crew alike. 
There was a rational explanation for all of it. There had to be. (p.201)
For all that happens over its course, Day Four is not a long novel at all, at three hundred pages and change including a selection of hellish appendices—namely newspaper reports dubbing the disappearance of The Beautiful Dreamer "the biggest maritime disaster since the Titanic" (p.290) alongside a few interviews. With who? Well. That'd be telling.

But not too telling, in truth, because the book's relative brevity is bit of a mixed blessing: welcome as regards the narrative insofar as it allows Sarah Lotz to avoid the unfortunate fate that affects so much dark fantasy fiction—not for a second does Day Four overstay its welcome, or undercut the deplorable unknown at its core with mundane explanation; regrettable in that it doesn't leave Lotz with a lot of room to explore her expansive cast of characters.

In fairness, we do come to feel for a few, albeit by dint of their sympathetic situations. Most of the staff, in fact, are cut from the same cloth. Almost to a one, they're on the run—from something, like Jesse's drug dependency, or someone: Althea's initially idyllic marriage has become abusive, whilst Devi, a former sub-inspector, has had to put his promising career on hold after a syndicate threatened to expose his sexual orientation.

The passenger POVs are at least less samey. Xavier Smith, a trust fund baby and blogger, has come on the cruise to expose Celine del Ray for the con-artist he believes her to be. Elderly Helen and ailing Elise, AKA The Suicide Sisters, plan to take their own lives aboard The Beautiful Dreamer. Both ladies have lost loved ones and arrived at the end of their tether. Lastly, because it wouldn't be a Sarah Lotz novel without at least one utterly repugnant personality, we're given Gary, the girl's murderer—who didn't actually mean for his victim to choke on her own vomit, but the best laid date rapes, eh?

The long and short of all this is that the book features far too many characters for us to form the bonds we need to invest in the fates of fictional folks. Absent that sense of connection, the desperate events Day Four depicts are so abstracted that even the death of a pivotal figure feels... flat.

It falls to the plot to pull us along. Fortunately, it's packed so tightly and attentively that the story serves to take the strain—a story I'd wager takes its inspiration from a pair of last year's most captivating tales: Lotz's own The Three—with which Day Four occasionally connects, to excellent effect—and the real disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370:
Could the crew and passengers of The Beautiful Dreamer have suffered the same fate as those of the Marie Celeste and other ghost ships throughout history? 
After all, in this day and age, how does a ship that could comfortably house three thousand people simply disappear? There were extensive searches for the ship during the five days following its mysterious disappearance, yet no traces of its whereabouts were found. Conspiracy theorists are already polishing their foil hats, and there are predictably many whispers online and in the media about The Beautiful Dreamer falling victim to the notorious Bermuda Triangle, despite this myth being debunked on numerous occasions. (p.294)
There's no getting around the fact that Day Four isn't the equal of The Three, but don't expect it to be—do that for me—and you're likely to have a terrific time with it in spite of its overstuffed and somewhat samey ensemble. It's chilling; it's thrilling; the plot doesn't stop; the tension is relentless; and although it leaves us with more questions than answers, Day Four's denouement is truly tremendous: a House of Leaves-esque ending that I for one can't wait for Lotz to explore some more.


Day Four
by Sarah Lotz

UK Publication: May 2015, Hodder
US Publication: June 2015, Little, Brown

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