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Prepublication Reviews and Expertly Selected Title Lists

Three A.M. by Steven John

I’m a sucker for an intriguing, dystopian premise and Steven John’s Three A.M. certainly has one. After a virulently contagious, Ebola-like plague decimates the human race, survivors attempt to rebuild in a city forever enshrouded in mist. Thomas Vale is an ex-marine who makes a living as hired muscle, or occasionally, a private investigator. When a case he takes for chameleon-like Rebecca Ayers brings danger into his sad, alcohol-and-sleeping pill soaked life, Thomas begins to find disturbing answers to questions he had never thought to ask about his world.

Three A.M. offers a strong start. Vale is a reasonably perceptive but damaged individual living in a broken world, more interested in drinking, abusing debtors, and making sure clients, both current and potential, have a hard time finding him then actually doing anything resembling a job. He is at his most interesting, if not likable, when projecting the air of a paranoid bully, prone to ham-handed introspection.

Initially, Ayers is intriguing as well. She adopts a new persona every time she meets Thomas, and is obviously hiding information about the murder she wants him to investigate. The unnamed city is tailor made for intrigue. Buildings fall into disrepair, police are hostile and corrupt, and the sound of soldiers marching echoes through fog-blanketed streets on which pedestrians are unable to see beyond arm’s reach.

Unfortunately, a good deal of the potential built up through the first half of the book is cast aside shortly after we begin to get answers to questions about the novel’s world. In place of suspense and moral ambiguity, we are left with a protagonist that inexplicably evolves from misanthrope to selfless hero with hideous judgment, a femme fatale that transforms into a helpless damsel-in-distress, and evil masterminds whose machinations and motivations resemble those of a James Bond villain and Adam West Bat-nemesis fusion.

Perhaps the most glaring problem is the novel’s heavy-handed portrayal of romance. The amount of stroking and massaging inserted in place of flirtation is desperately uncomfortable and unconvincing, which would not be a huge problem if it wasn’t so overpoweringly and frequently present. Interaction between Thomas Vale and Rebecca Ayers reads as though related by a 13-year-old boy who desperately wants you to believe that, yes, this really did happen to him.

Three A.M. hits the reader with an excellent opening, an original setting, and pulpy, noir-ish characters, only to squander these assets later on in the novel, but what it does well is interesting enough that I would be willing to give Steven John’s next outing a try.

~Todd

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