The Reckoning: Stories the Dead Have to Tell

Jeff Long’s The Reckoning was part ghost story, part thriller.  Although published in 2004, it is set in 2000 so things like digital cameras seem novel and expensive.  Molly Drake, a young, ambitious photojournalist, joins a US Army-led effort to locate bones of MIA dead soldiers in Cambodia.  In addition to the soldiers, there a few civilians helping out as well:  Duncan O’Brian, a mysterious archaeologist who has spent years in Cambodia, and John Kleat, an unstable former soldier who searches every year for the remains of his dead brother.  Molly’s new digital camera almost seems to have magical powers, being able to tease images out of scenery that don’t exist to the naked eye.  She accidentally finds and photographs bones, inadvertently breaking her promise, and she, Kleat and O’Brian are thrown off the dig.  As they are licking their wounds, a young man approaches them with an offer to take them to the location where an entire patrol went missing.  Not ready to go home yet and intoxicated with the idea of finding the remains of an entire patrol, the trio agrees to accompany him to an ancient city that seems alive.  And you just know it’s going to end badly.

I’m not sure what to make of this book.  It was well-written and fast-paced. It’s a very quick, taut book.  I liked it, but I felt…confused by it.  I read a review that said it was a choose-your-own-adventure book, which is rather accurate.  If you want it to be a ghost story, it is.  If you want it to be supernatural, it is. If you want it to be a thriller, it is.  If you want it to be a story about the scars war give people and the land, it is.  The problem is that I never liked choose-your-own-adventure books; as I’ve stated before, I like a straightforward plot and have never felt the need to function as a deus ex machina in whatever I was reading.  Besides, I’d always get confused about what page I was on and where I had come from or been in those books LOL. 

I didn’t like the characters.  Thirty-year-old Molly’s “issues” irritated me.  Her supposedly terrible life seemed more the life a spoiled brat chose than something that a cruel fate had inflicted upon her.  Kleat was one-dimensional and Duncan seemed to be a cipher, which was, well, appropriate.  I felt like you could have substituted any characters in the plot.  In some ways it seemed like those particular characters didn’t matter, though they end up mattering a lot to the truth of what is going on.

Long does an amazing job of making the scenery come alive…literally.  Plants grow massively overnight and seem to have a mind of their own.  I was appropriately creeped out by the setting.  Long makes the setting one more threat to Molly, Kleat and O’Brian, which reminded me a lot of Scott Smith’s The Ruins.  I like the ghost story elements of the book, and I like how Kleat and O’Brian are involved, but it seemed weak drawing Molly actively into that story and giving her a reason to be there.  I think it was overkill to force everyone involved to have a connection.

Interesting book and almost lyrical in spots.  Also recommended:

  • The Descent: what would we do if we discovered if hell existed and we could access it? (Long)
  • The Ruins:  sometimes it’s better to stay in your hotel room and lounge by the pool instead of going exploring (Smith)

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