I am really glad I didn’t have to wait almost four years for this story the way a lot of people did. I only got to reading Exoskeleton, the previous novel from Shane Stadler, a couple of months ago (read my review here), so thankfully I didn’t have long to wait on the follow-up novel, Tympanum. Though even if I did have to wait years instead of months to catch up with William Thompson and the story of “Red Wraith”, I still would have deemed the wait worth it. Which can only mean one thing: that Shane Stadler has again delivered the goods with a knock out novel powered by one corker of a story.
The novel picks up some time after the events in Exoskeleton, when Will Thompson (the book’s central character) was a victim of the Compressed Punishment program, a secret government project carried out in order to try and “separate” the soul from the bodies of the victims imprisoned inside the Exoskeletons, a process attempted through means of extreme physical and mental torture. After much brutal abuse in the Red Box, the program succeeded in allowing Will Thompson to achieve separation of his soul from his body, effectively launching him into another plane of existence, and giving him superpowers to boot, which Will eventually used to bring down the whole program in a very destructive way.
The raison d’être for the Red Wraith project was supposedly to create advanced weapons (as is usually the case with secret government programs) in the form of super-soldiers who could wreak havoc and destruction wherever they were deployed. That was the understanding set out in the first book, but the author of Exoskeleton also hinted at other, more deeper and sinister reasons for the program. But hints were all we got before the first book drew to an end.
Picking up the second book, I half expected Will to be in the employ of the FBI, helping them solve cases by using his superpowers. The way Exoskeleton was left, it kind of seemed things were heading in that direction, like, “Okay Will, we need you to do your soul separating thingy and go inside that building to save all those hostages from the vicious terrorists holding them,” and Will would go do his thing and save the day.
All I can say is, thank Christ the story didn’t go down that path, or I fear it would have become some lame, crime busting hijinks novel. But no, thankfully Tympanum is not that at all, and is in fact, much more.
As it turns out, there actually is a bigger purpose for the Red Wraith program, and we spend most of the book uncovering what that purpose is. It is the central mystery at the heart of Tympanum, and one which kept me fully engrossed for the two days it took me to read the book.
The story itself starts of at a fairly slow pace, and to be honest, I feared the book was going to be a let-down compared to the first book. I loved the first book, and I so wanted the follow-up to be as awesome. I’m glad to say though, that I wasn’t disappointed, and that the follow up turned out to be just as awesome, and a whole lot more.
As I said, what makes Tympanum such a joy to read is the intricately thought out story that drives everything along. It is like uncovering a giant conspiracy theory–perhaps the ultimate conspiracy theory–one fascinating piece at a time. I happen to love stories like this, simply because I can’t resist a good conspiracy theory. There is something about government programs and secret projects that just makes me want to know more. Clandestine shit like that never fails to arouse my curiosity. If nothing else, you will not want to put this book down, if only to find out what the whole thing is about; to find out what the real point of the Red Wraith project was in the first place.
And my, what a tale it turns out to be. I’m not giving anything away by telling you that the roots of the program exist with the Nazis. That much was made clear in the first book. With this book though, we are privy to even more detailed accounts of the Nazis involvement in the program, and the lengths they went to in order to pursue it, and to keep it all a secret from an unsuspecting world.
As you might have guessed from the cover, much of the action takes place in Antarctica, where a strange beacon that exists in the depths under the ice has drawn the attention of the worlds intelligence agencies to go check it out. The main plot of the novel revolves around everyone trying to work out what the hell the strange object is and why it appears to be a beacon of some sort.
Quite a few of the characters from the first book are involved in unraveling this mystery, including Will himself obviously, and also his friends Jonathan and Denise. The bulk of the researching and uncovering of information is done by three characters known as Omniscients, who work in secret for the CIA. It is through them that we get to learn the secrets of the Red Wraith project and its ultimate purpose, which as one character says, may have “existential consequences” (which become clear by the end of the book).
Even though there is a shitload of information delivered in this novel, the author manages to deliver it all in the context of a page-turning thriller, just as he did in the first book also. Tympanum is fast-paced and features enough action to satisfy the reader and give them a break from the constant stream of uncovered information. Not that you will need a break. As I said, the gradual revealing of the mystery at the heart of the book will keep you turning the pages as much (if not more) than the action scenes.
There is a danger with stories like these that the build-up throughout will come to nothing. I have read many books (and seen more movies) where the story has a really interesting and captivating build towards solving some mystery, only to have things fall flat at the end. Sometimes a story can make promises that it ultimately fails to deliver on and the ending can be a let-down. I’m happy to report however, that that isn’t the case here. The ending of the book is very satisfying and equally as engaging as the story that got it there in the first place.
What I also appreciated about this book, as I did in the first book, is that the author raises existential questions through the story and the actions of the characters, especially at the end of the novel. I couldn’t help thinking of Prometheus, the Ridley Scott movie. Tympanum raises the same kind of questions about our existence as that movie, all of which add depth and integrity to the novel, while making the incredible story and plot somehow more plausible.
The novel has a lot of integrity to it. I would say a staggering amount of research went into this book, and that is evident, not only in the layers of the conspiracy story, but also in every scene. The scenes that take place on the submarine especially, I thought were very believable and well executed in the way that the crew behaved and ran things. The author obviously has a firm mental picture of how everything looks in the novel, and he does a great job of putting his vision across by being precisely detailed about things, again adding to the overall integrity and plausibility of the novel. I guess that’s the scientist coming out in him 🙂
Like the first book, Tympanum ends with the promise of more to come. The story is not yet concluded, and I’m excited to read what happens next, though I beg the author not to wait as long this time for a follow-up. I’ll wait if I have to though. With a story this fascinating and engaging, the wait will always be worth it, I’m sure.