by Sarah Lotz
Many readers consider "The Three" to be an intriguing title, rife with menace and significance.
I found it rather bland.
Many readers find the book is brilliant, an atmospheric literary horror that defies all attempts to categorize it.
I found it rather banal.
There's something rather fitting for a book that centres around interpretation to be so subjective itself.
The Three begins with four almost simultaneous plane crashes. Each crash is apparently unconnected-- the planes were from a different carrier and on a different continent. As emergency crews begin to try to sort through each scene, they find a total of three--or is it four?--survivors: one lone child from each plane. But even as the children's' caretakers begin to notice differences in the personalities of their new charges, a minister in Texas begins to see the miracle of their survival as something else entirely: the four planes become the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and the three (or is it four?) children are harbingers of the Rapture.
You might think I'm just setting the scene and summarising the opening of the book, and I am. I haven't said anything that isn't clear in the first fifty or so pages, but so little actually happens in the book that it could be a fair summary of a quite larger portion. The book is, ostensibly, an investigative journalist's book on the furore surrounding the child survivors. In abstract, I like the multi-narrator oral-history/interview/news-article style: it provides an opportunity to shape a set of unreliable narrators with distinctive perspectives, objectives, and voices. Unfortunately, the results didn’t quite work for me. Almost the entire story consists of the maunderings of the characters and unsubtle and portentous foreshadowings to events that happen only at the very end.(show spoiler)
Most of the book consists of the caretakers' attempts to determine if the children’s behavior is simply due to trauma or if they might be evil demon apocalyptic alien changelings. The book isn't a clone of Midwich Cuckoos or Stepford Wives or that creepy kiddie episode of SPN; rather than dealing with the consequences of the supernatural, it focuses instead on the ambiguity, subjectivity, and uncertainty of the potentially cuckoo'd children. In fact, maybe the similarities explain my impatience with the slow plot. I kept waiting for things to get started, but by the time they did, the book had ended.
The effort spent in maligning the oh-so-evil-and-hysterically-close-minded American religious right is as trite and tired as the rest of the plot. Sometimes, I think this obligatory ridiculing of the religious right is the literary grown-up's version of the grand middleschool tradition of picking on that socially inept kid who has the temerity to try to talk to the popular kids. Since everyone finds him annoying and no one wants to defend him, mocking him becomes almost noble rather than a petty and mean-spirited cruelty. Insulting him, tripping him up, shoving him into a locker, and snidely mocking him in the school newsletter becomes a virtuous act, a way of teaching him his proper place in the world and warning others of the danger he embodies. Since practically everyone in the literary world loves a good sneer at the Evangelicals, the religious right are the easy, uncontroversial, popular targets. The Three gets bonus points in this arena for portraying all the Christians in the book in the narrative as batshit crazy.
In terms of characters, we have a few interesting ones-- I liked the Jewish grandmother whose husband's mind is slowly being lost to Alzheimer's-- but most of the time, I felt that Lotz settled for crude, stereotyped sketches. The book is chock-full of ridiculously direct references to our culture, from "2Chan" to the extremely popular British show "Cavendish Hall" to the "miracle girl" who survived an Ethiopian plane crash. While this does lose points in the creativity department, the main problem I see is the characterization of these real-life figures: for example, the author of the "Gone" books (which are a spitting image for the "Left Behind"/"Rapture" series) is portrayed as a money-grubbing sleaze. To my mind, there's something rather problematic about excusing such direct and negative characterizations with the standard disclaimer of "Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental" when this is patently false.
Maybe I’m being unfair to the book. I listened to it on audio, and whilst I have no complaints about the voices or the cadences of the pair of narrators, both of them are now on my Bad Accent Hit List. Until I listened to The Three, I had no idea that anyone could conflate Japanese accents with Australian ones, and if their South African ones are as off as their Generic Southern ones...well. Please, narrators, please, if you have no freaking clue what an accent sounds like, please don't just "give it a shot." At least go on Youtube and listen to a few regional accent memes. It is incredibly grating to hear accents--the Japanese one in particular, which reminds me of movies from the 50's-- so horrifically butchered, and in my opinion, it doesn't just border on offensive; it hurtles past at 90 mph.
In some ways, I can understand why the narrators went overboard with the accents. Other than a few folksy and superficial slang terms intended to characterize their nationalities, they have similar sentence structures and, even when English is supposedly not their first language, use rather abstruse words. While I could only catch the American oddities, even the idioms felt wrong. For example, whether or not some Southerners do "reckon," I’ve definitely never heard a northerner use the expression. Yet the NYC-based reporter uses it and other non-American expressions again and again.
This is one of those books that I just can't appreciate. I suppose that if you've never read Midwich Cuckoos or seen Stepford Wives or have never seen the "ambiguously creepy child" motif a billion times before, and you somehow have missed all the other instances of the Evil American Religious Right Extremist trope, or maybe your brain just works differently than mine, then this will be an entertaining read. In terms of horror, it didn't do anything for me, but considering the praise the book has garnered, I'm apparently something of an outlier. Whatever you feel about the book, I think I’d strongly suggest staying away from the audio version. All I can say, in the end, is that the merits of the book are as subjective as the title.