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Douglas Carlton Abrams
Eye of the Whale
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Atria / Simon & Schuster
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-1-4165-3254-5
Publication Date: 08-04-2009
365 Pages; $25.95
Date Reviewed: 07-31-2009

Index:  General Fiction  Science Fiction

Just because it's true, that doesn't mean that it's interesting. Whenever you go into a writing group and mention that your work is based on fact, whether those are the facts of your family or those of a research scientist, you can count on hearing this tidbit. And it's true. But good characters are interesting. And a page-turning plot, though it may read so easily you find yourself doing so almost against your will, is certainly interesting — though not so easy to write as it is to read. In some senses, however, facts, no matter how true can almost work against a writer. Readers of fiction want a fictional reading experience, not a series of lectures strong together and described by the writer as a story.

'Eye of the Whale' has facts that matter — a lot — and a message that needs to be heard — a lot. But even the author, Doug Abrams, knows that those facts can hurt the reading experience as much as they might help it. 'Eye of the Whale' lays on the facts in an amazingly easy-to-digest manner, with a toe-tapping plot that's nicely layered and really quite compelling — more so than the characters involved. It's a delicate balance, but in the end, the compulsive reader wins. I found myself finishing the book at speed, wanting to go back to it again and again to find out what was going to happen. Oh, I had my suspicions. I've read enough contemporary thrillers to know where these things go. But Abrams' plotting skills, buttressed by an impressive array of facts that lend the novel a real sense of place, put my butt in the chair and kept me reading. Not surprisingly, I suppose, I have to say that I was truly immersed in this novel about whales and our world in imminent danger.

I'll spare the reader the eco-facts that go into the novel. Abrams does such a clever job weaving them into a pretty damn complicated plot that readers need simply know hat the novel begins with a non-graduate student, Elizabeth McKay recording some new words in the whale song off the island of Bequia (beck-way). As she tries to understand her findings, she becomes a problem for more and more people above her in the academic food chain and around her in the economic ecology of the oceans. But she has to confirm and comprehend just what the truth is before she can get out there and tell it to someone who cares. And there are those who'd prefer that not come to pass.

Abrams characters tend to be rather broad, but the cast is large and each of them is carved out in enough detail that there's never a bit of confusion. This includes the whales as well as the humans, and the whales are quite well-drawn. Abrams does something clever that looks simple with his whales. By including them as equals to the humans in his novel, he invests the reader with a visceral understanding of their intelligence and import. He uses the fictional device of characterization to hit readers in their hearts. By involving the whales in the deftly orchestrated perils of his conspiracy-thriller plot, he's already won the battle before, really, it's even begun.

The humans don't fare quite so well. Elizabeth McKay is quite fully-formed, but might strike the reader as the sort of woman who is better read about than actually known. As much as we all loved Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter), he must have rubbed a large number of writers the wrong way, because we are seeing a new standard in eco-bad guys. And there are some lost opportunities here as well. McKay's mentor Professor Maddings, has the ring of truth, but we don't see nearly enough of him. To Abrams' credit, he does handle the large cast well. You can see 'em all and will tend to cast them all, since the novel has a very cinematic feel.

Plotting and science are the winners here, and Abrams is superb in taking well, certainly not dry facts, but facts nonetheless and pulling them into a real page-turning thriller. His characters are likable (and in some cases, unlikable) enough that readers of all tastes will want to find out who is going to live or die. As with many thrillers, there's a feel of science fiction with the actuality of science fact. As it happens, the facts behind this novel are indeed interesting. But the fact that matters most is that Abrams knows how to write a novel that keeps you reading.

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