When I first landed on Jeju, I remember thinking, as I stared off into the distance from Seogwipo harbor, that the island, with its lush environment, tumultuous history, and exotic topography would be an ideal locale for a James Bond-style narrative. Apparently I’m not the only one who thought so.
Chris Kuzenski’s third novel “Sword of God,” published in 2007, takes place in numerous settings (one of which is Jeju Island) and tells the story of Jonathon Payne, a retired American special operative and former captain of an elite counterinsurgency team of renegade soldiers known as the MANICAs. As the heavy-handed appellation might immediately indicate, this is not a book of great subtly, but a dime store novel in-line with the plot-driven pulp fiction of Dan Brown, James Patterson and other bestsellers whose books fly off the shelves and leave little of significance or impact in their wake.
The novel begins on Jeju Island in a post 9/11 world, with a curious little boy intrigued by the smell of blood coming from a cave near the Manjang cave system. Predictably disobeying the village elder’s warning to leave well enough alone, that the cave is haunted, and not to follow his mischievous instincts, he enters the cave with the third-person omnipotent narrator remarking, “The boy didn’t know it as he trudged up the hill, but he was about to kill his village.”
The story quickly shifts to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with Payne behind his desk as owner of Payne Industries, the lucrative family business that he inherited and which forced him to retire from the American military. He receives a visit from a Colonel Harrington, who informs him that one of his former MANICA team members is MIA, and they want Payne and his second in command, J.D. Jones, to get him back.
The cave, which is found coated with blood, is the catalyst of the story, and about a third of the novel takes place on Jeju. The use of the Island as a setting is weird to say the least. In-depth descriptions of the formation of Jeju, history of the April 3rd massacre, and of worry about highway speed cameras are all detailed through clunky, tangential dialog.
At times “Sword of God” reads like a dramatized tourist information booklet. For instance, a random soldier remarks to Payne, “‘Koreans actually embrace the variety of climates on Jeju. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can find both polar and tropical animals living on the same island.’ Payne nodded. ‘That’s kind of unique.’” See, weird. Neither polar nor tropical animals are essential to the novel; show, don’t tell, does not appear to be in Kuzenski’s tool box.
The passage continues with a detailed and informative description of Mt. Halla and its lava tube system. Descriptions of this sort appear frequently throughout “Sword of God” and throw a wrench into the gears of the plot, unmooring the reader.
It was an interesting attempt to make Jeju into the dominant backdrop for a story of this genre, but unfortunately it didn’t work. Ultimately there was no reason, other than those in the first paragraph of this review, for the novel to have taken place on Jeju. The other dominant setting, Saudi Arabia, works and is completely grounded. Concerning Jeju’s appearance in the story, it could be replaced by practically any other location with the same effect.
“Sword of God” is not a great book, but it never strived to be one; this is not its failing. It is a dime store novel that caters to its audience with macho bravado, clichés, explosions and with every chapter ending with a cliffhanger.
Where the book does fail is from a Jeju perspective. As opposed to being an island that is the setting of grandiose espionage and intrigue, that it is dense and has the possibility for something other than the mandated tourist image, Jeju was stand-in foreign locale number three, where tourist staples were embellished and highlighted, the culture exoticized and made confusing. In fiction, the writer has the power to move mountains. What a waste when that responsibility is used to reiterate what has been written again and again.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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