Mind the Gap - Tim Richards

Mind the Gap

Tim Richards

 

When Darius Ibrahim swipes his Oyster card, he thinks he is in for only the standard dangers of travelling the Underground: late trains, confined spaces, and that peculiar variety of awkward silence that Londoners specialize in. But when a knife-wielding maniac with peculiar eyes takes a swipe at him, Darius suddenly discovers a new talent: the ability to travel between certain stations in the blink of an eye. With multiple competing groups from a different world after him, Darius’s new skill will come in handy.

 

Mind the Gap is one of those books that I find it difficult to review, mostly because my strong reaction utterly impedes my ability to be fair. Richards has a vivid imagination and a plethora of interesting ideas, but for a variety of reasons, the book just didn’t work for me. Maybe the story just didn’t match my expectations. From the blurb, I expected an amusing tongue-in-cheek romp, something in the style of Christopher Moore or A Lee Martinez. Instead, I got a book that played the cliches cringingly straight: there’s a Prophecy (in truly terrible rhyme), a Chosen One, and even a Dark Lord--capitalization not mine. In standard Chosen One parlance, Darius is repeatedly referred to as “the boy”--32 times, by my count-- even though he’s an ex-IT-specialist and must be in his 20s or 30s. Lines ripped straight out of a B movie were spoken in earnest, such as:

“You’ve discovered the power within … That is good. Soon you will be ready.”

or

“The man drew himself up, and favored Darius with a cold look down the bridge of his nose. ‘I am Raman Nefer, Controller of the Realm of Anubis in the province of Mas-Ra and its dominions,’ he said. ‘All you need to know…. is that I control your destiny.’”

And then there’s the aforementioned Prophecy (capitalization still not mine):

“At the time of its greatest weakness

The pack finds a new master,

A man from beyond the mirror

Who travels the earth

In the twinkling of an eye.

FInd him, o dogs, and your war is won.”

The book actually ends with the words “To be continued…”, and in my opinion, that pretty much reflects the level of subtlety of the rest of the story.

 

Richards employs a large cast of perspective characters, all with interestingly muddy motivations. However, the transitions between them are abrupt and initially somewhat jerky and they tend to have informed attributes rather than defined personalities. Characters’ lives are very superficially constructed, and we get massive infodumps of their life stories at various inopportune moments. For example, take Viv, Darius’s love interest/ sidekick:

“She was very attractive, but it was her personality that was just Darius’s speed: she was forthright, positive, able to hold her own in a conversation. He liked that.”

Darius manages to pick her up with some stilted conversation at a coffee bar, at which point she takes him home and lets him borrow her computer to look up maps of the Underground. And then without further ado, we get this:

“He was interrupted by two arms sliding over his shoulders from behind, under his shirt. Warm hands against his chest, warm face against his cheek, hair brushing his shoulder.

‘Enough computer for now, train boy?’ she asked, as he slid out of her grasp and turned to face her.

They shared a kiss, then smiled.

‘Oh yeah,’ he said.

Hand in hand, they walked into the bedroom.”

The whole romance felt cardboard and contrived. They go from strangers to lovers in a paragraph, and without further ado, she becomes his loyal sidekick. All without a single meaningful conversation, if their mutual lack of knowledge about each other is anything to go by. Most of the characters’ lives felt superficially constructed, and most of their life stories are provided via massive infodumps at various inopportune moments. 

 

I tend to like plots where the ordinary guy is initially overwhelmed by an extraordinary situation, but at some point, he should stop running, start putting things together, and end by taking responsibility for his destiny. That never really happens here. Darius spends essentially the entire book fleeing from everyone else, wondering what is going on, and fortuitously escaping trouble. The book isn’t without humour, but I found it so heavy and unsubtle that it made me wince.

 

Richards has a vivid imagination, and I loved his conception of a dream world that has a symbiotic relationship with our own. His usage of Egyptian mythology was also interesting. However, I think the sheer breadth of the worldbuilding left many aspects underdeveloped. The shortness of the text and the number of characters and motives forced Richards into a tendency towards infodumps and exposition-driven conversations, leading to flat, stilted dialogue. The plot also had a heavy dependency on exposition-heavy dreams--including mirror dream-selves-- and visions, an indication, in my opinion, that the plot can’t carry itself. I never have issues with books that require suspension of disbelief; I’m enchanted by the idea of dual worlds and Egyptian gods come to life. But I can’t tolerate internal inconsistencies and subplots that require characters to behave unnaturally solely to further the plot.

 

And then there are the plotholes. Here’s my partial list:

  • When Hamila sends Darius an email, it’s never explained how Hamila (a) knew anything about email, (b) found a computer, or (c) knew Darius’s email address.
  • The violence is so superficial that we never even find out what those guns did to the people the soldiers shot. Even more problematically, at various points, soldiers storm the underground and shoot people with mysterious weapons, but there’s apparently no effect on the rest of the world. Where is the international uproar? I had the sense that the author never thought it through.
  • Given the number of times the main characters jet back and forth between worlds, how does no one important die? Supposedly one in three don’t make it, right?
  • How did everyone go from the assumption that if Darius can jet around the undergrounds of Earth, he can move back and forth between Terra and Earth? This seems to me to be an utterly unfounded assumption. Why would moving within one world imply moving between two?
  • The earrings thing requires everyone to act out of character. They strip Viv of her clothes and shoes and even shave her head, but they let her keep the earrings? Really? That seems to me to be incredibly contrived.
  • In my opinion, the line “We’ll have to split up” should never be spoken in earnest, but in this case, it also happens for no reason other than plot convenience. The characters’ claim is that “at least some of us might survive this way,” but if they had stayed together, they could fight together, with the added bonus that one party wouldn’t be stranded without a light.
  • Given that this is Kovary’s first visit to Earth and we know from Viv that Terra uses different money, where did Kovary get the money to buy her coffee, clothes, etc? I’m not sure that even occurred to Richards.
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 I had real trouble finishing the book, which was peculiar, given the sheer number of suspenseful situations and the intriguing ambiguities in the characters’ motivations. I think the problem was that the book set up a situation with no particular outcome that I as a reader felt strongly about. Since the only alternatives that I was aware of were unsatisfactory, none of characters’ choices seemed to matter. All that was left, and all that was left to expect, was a deus ex machina. It’s never a suspenseful setup when the reader is forced to expect a twist in the ending because no other outcome would make sense.

The whole plot felt like a muddle to me. Viv’s dream thing struck me as really problematic: not only was it embarrassingly cliche, but it meant that a significant character was introduced over 75% of the way through the book for a purpose that wasn’t explained until the very end. The whole twin subplot struck me as wincingly amateur and cliched, the only clue provided a few unsubtle hints that “magical twins are special.” Only at 94% do we discover that Tarik and the Oracle have the power to turn Terra into “a hive mind”, and that the Oracle is a benevolent being twisted by Tarik. Nothing in the entire book suggested that to me. But the P.G. Wodehouse thing was so far out of nowhere that it made the rest of the plot seem coherent and elegantly built.

(show spoiler)

Richards has an impressive imagination, and I really regret my inability to enjoy the book. I think the blurb does the book a disservice. It led me to expect a bit of fluffy parody, whereas the real story is more of an action/adventure.  If you're willing to put up with Prophecies, Chosen Ones, and deus ex machinas to enjoy an interestingly designed dual world, then then this might be an enjoyable read. 

 

**Note: this review is of an uncorrected advanced reader copy. While the included quotes may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the nature of the novel as a whole.**

 

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, HarperCollins Publishers Australia, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review.~~