Reviewing Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s: “Apprentice wizard, father and son”

An incomplete snapshot of what others say

The incredibly sloppy summary on Bol.com

The Bol.com summary is incredibly sloppy. No clue if it has been delivered by the publisher or someone else who: “read” the book. Each sentence in that summary is basically nonsense in relationship to the actual work. And added to that: what is it with this sloppy use of past tense when summarizing a story?

Quote 1, second sentence (translated and corrected):

A mysterious stranger whom Travis met meets by chance on the beach taught teaches him [though] to accept death and made makes him a celebrated surfing champion.

No, dear writer of this stupid summary: Travis does not “learn to accept death”. Not of himself or of his father. As in: 70% to 90% of Travis’ part of the book, including the ending, his own illness and the neglect of his own family troubles is about Travis not accepting (his own and his father’s) death. The “surf champion” part is like… not relevant. It is the first wish Travis gets fulfilled. The book briefly mentions it and then quickly moves on to other things.

Quote 2: third, fourth and fifth sentence in the summary:

Now, twenty years later, Travis sees his end coming near again. And only then he realizes that he was robbed in that past — in a pact with the devil — of something essential that changed changes his destiny forever. On his deathbed he decides, regardless the possible cost, to save his son from the suffering that made him into a broken/incomplete person.

There is no pact ‘with the devil’ as Olde Heuvelt continues to make clear in the book. A pact with a liar and a semi-immortal bitter wizard asshole: yes. Supernatural elements: yes. A price: yes. A, slash, ‘the’ devil? No. Not even close. And while Travis is dying, he is not “on his deathbed”. (The deathbed is the bed you — as the dying person — are spending your last moments on.) Travis is not ANYWHERE NEAR his deathbed after he discovers he is dying or when makes his decisions (that do not involve “saving his son” or his wife Sharon in any way). He joins a new team instead, cuts up corpses, drives a car from one part of the US to another, illegally crosses the border to Mexico with the severed head of another man and does a lot more in the last weeks or months of his dying than many people will do or experience in their whole life.

If that “deathbed” refers to the last scenes where Travis ‘decides’, even there Travis mainly realizes how fucked he is by the man previously known as Buster Chavez: before being buried under the water of a complete lake.

Travis “seeing his end coming near again” implies Travis was about to die somewhere in the beginning of the book. While… that is not the case at all.

I can go on and on and on, but this is not about the… summary on Bol.com.

Presented much better in the review

A better review is on Fantasyboeken.org (Dutch) and Nu.nl (Dutch). At least in those summaries I find back many things I actually recognize from the book.

And while it is nice Olde Heuvelt is mentioned in one sentence with Stephen King, I personally would hate that comparison as King kind of bores me to death.

The story (no spoilers)

In the beginning of the book, Travis is a kid of 14 years old who is still dealing with the loss of his father: a surfer and environmental activist who fought for a cleaner Tijuana Imperial Beach as waste (toxic material, human excrement) from several places end up there.

His mother has become (or seems to be) indifferent, not wanting to think about it anymore. Travis himself counts the time in weeks, centering on Wednesday, and 16:02 as that is the day his father died and the moment he pressed the “erase” button on the voice-mail machine.

Having failed miserably to ride a wave — and almost drowning — Travis meets an older surfer who is claimed to be a legend, surfing one of the more dangerous surfs. His name is Buster Chavez. Chavez offers him three wishes and a helping hand. As the relationship between Travis and Chavez evolves, we learn more about the deal Travis has made with the semi-immortal Buster and suspicions arise Buster might have more sinister plans with Travis and that Buster might have had something to do with the death of Travis’ father. Travis finally rejects his “teacher” at the end of part one.

We fast-forward roughly twenty years.

Buster Chavez has long walked into the sea and is assumed dead a while ago. Travis now has a deal that might grant him immortality. He is married, has a wife and a child, works at the morgue of the local hospital and we enter his life in a moment where two main problems play a role:

  1. His wife, Sharon, had cancer and discovers a new lump under her arm.
  2. Their son has stopped developing and his body seems to be that of an eight-year old child.

A third problem: money and more specifically: money for further treatment for Sharon is soon solved when Travis is offered a new deal and an new job in the company of Sheldon Green: that harvests organs and body-parts from organ donors.

From there, the story is slowly built up. Buster Chavez starts showing up again. We see the dealings of Travis moving towards something with the smell of illigality: maybe cutting up bodies of people who which might not have given their entire consent for that to happen. We learn about the book Sharon is writing, which only contain a few words, written in the beginning and at the very end, leaving mostly empty pages in between and corrected several times over as the relationship between her and Travis changes.

The turning point in the book is where and when the team Travis works with kills the body that represents the man formerly known as Buster Chavez. From there, the built up elements start to unwind. In the end, the double meanings in the title: “Apprentice wizard, father & son” becomes clearer.

Reading experiences

All in all this is a good debut, written in 2007, published five years ago (in 2008) when Olde Heuvelt (1983) was in his mid twenties. It grips and invites you to read on. Especially the first part of the book has a clear cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, pushing/pulling me, the reader, forward.

I started yesterday in the train. I ended it this morning after waking. I allowed the story to guide me to the very end. Which is not always the case with books I read.

The critique I read elsewhere on the book “slowing down” is partially correct. The middle of the book feels muddled. Like Olde Heuvelt kind of knows where he wants to go but still is searching for a clear way to bring it all down to paper. I also suspected his description of the organ-harvesting did not really fit with reality. About that more later.

The end is partially satisfying and as the story developed it surely kept me reading. There were no parts I read as: “boring. Boring. Boring. Hmmm. Boring. Skip. Boring. Skip”.

The style in which it is written differs quite strongly from more recent short stories I read from Olde Heuvelt, including: “The boy who cast no shadow”, “The fish in the bottle” and “The ink readers of Doy Saket”: the last ones being a bit more “loose” or “playful” and they feel much closer to what I think is Olde Heuvelt’s personal voice than is the case in “Apprentice wizard”. (Read “Fish” or “Doy Saket” and then watch Olde Heuvelt talk on one of his video blogs on YouTube. Then read it again. I found certain patterns in his speaking mirrored in his writing.)

“Apprentice wizard” is done from a more neutral point of view. And it is a matter of taste what you like more.

I personally like the neutral style better than the ‘loose’ tone of voice. For me the neutral style creates more space to fill in my own voice when reading it.

What is missing (in my eyes)

The deadline of Travis

Travis suffers, but at a certain point it becomes unclear how it is possible he is able to cope for so long. We lack a proper insight in the way his specific disease will progress. A simple explenation why he goes on as he does would have helped me a lot. Like (my words):

“As things go now you will be dead in a year, Travis. You probably will be able to function normally for the next eight months until the point where your organs start breaking down one by one.”

Such a deadline linked to his personal breakdown would have helped for me as a reader to understand how Travis is able to push all other things including his family aside: as his death is not immediate and his real point of dying is known. Now I simply am like: “puking blood. Family breaking down. Still going on with everything else like everything is ok. When will he die? What the fuck?”

Organ harvesting from dead bodies: research!

The time-table behind the organ-harvesting felt wrong when I read it.

From what Olde Heuvelt suggests in the scenes related to the organ harvesting, the bodies are already dead for a while and maybe even in a state of decay when they arrive at the hospital morgue to be harvested.

I quote (Part 2, chapter 3, page 82 of the Dutch edition, translated by me)

Her name was Carlise Camber, brought in yesterday. She was sixty seven and according to the label on her big toe she had died of acute cerebral hemorrhage. When he [Travis] cut her open, he could smell death inside of her.

Now one thing I assumed with donor-organs is that their corpses need to be super-fresh, otherwise you risk several things, including rejection of the harvested organs by the body it will be implanted in and (probably) the organ starting to rot in the new body as the cells are already in state of decay.

So I googled. From Wikipedia:

Organs cannot be harvested after heart stops beating for a long time. Thus, a brain dead donor is preferred, but only a small percentage of deaths are brain deaths. Therefore, the majority of human organ sources are post cardiac death.

Donation after cardiac death involves surgeons to take organs within minutes of respirators and other forms of life support have being cut off from patients who still have at least some brain activity.

 There…

If this would have been a minor element in the book, it could have been forgivable. Something you say “hmm… what? whatever!” about and then leave behind as you move on.

However: organ harvesting and related items play a major role in a major part of the book. And Googling: “organ harvesting” by Olde Heuvelt or his editor could have prevented this wrong assumption: even upping the moral questions and moral questionability of the shady business Travis lands into.

This lack of research is a bit of a lot of sloppiness and should not have happened.

The inter-human relationships: consistent but too shallow for me

All in all Olde Heuvelt does a decent job in writing his characters. It is relatively easy for any inexperienced writer to create conversations and interactions  between characters that make you crinch like: “please let them shut the fuck up!” on your seat each time they meet and move them all over the place when they make decisions.

In most cases Olde Heuvelt moves through it decently and the occasional stumbling within the interactions is hardly noticeable. What I do feel is that the characters in “Apprentice wizard” are not fully developed. Yes: their motives are there. Their actions are properly motivated. Olde Heuvelt is consistent in what they do and how they do it, but it is as if we go only one layer deep.

Self-centered Travis: Why is Travis growing apart from his wife and child? Why is he constantly choosing for himself? Why does he – again and again – choose for something else but spending the (maybe) last moments of their lives together with his family: in togetherness? Sure we get some reflection in short explanations, but where are those same behavioral traits expressed elsewhere? Or reflected by the views of others on Travis? Or in inner conflicts? For instance: how does he sleep over all this?

Dying Travis: Why does he continue to work for his boss when he throws up blood and seems to be terminally ill: his body slowly breaking itself down? How is all that work-relates stuff so important for him?

Travis the running man / husband: More specific elaboration to “self centered Travis”: what wounds is he avoiding? What else did he run away from before? (His access to magic? His mother?) Where else did he avoid a partner / friend like he does with Sharon? What is he avoiding now? Why?

Travis the magician: How is it he forgot those awesome powers? Did he never again have those experiences? Or something similar? Nothing. We skipped 20 years.

Two possible directions it could have gone as well

Speculating this, the book could have gone two possible directions from Travis and his personal issues:

  1. Re-discovery of Travis / Travis dealing with his own shit — Who? Why? How does that influence his choices? What will happen when Travis is discovering how he has been running away from Sharon and their troubled son? What if Travis would have chosen more time together when he discovers he is dying? And would happen in that case when Chavez enters his life again to “deliver the promise” and “fulfill the third wish”?
  2. Travis the self-destructing running man — Showing him as done now, but maybe a bit more polarized. Maybe even more self-destructive as he seems to be now. Ignoring his own process, pushing out of his conciousness the issues with Sharon and their child, diving deeper into problems as the book progresses, ending in a very, very dark place before we go even deeper when Chavez fully manifests himself again. Showing his dilemma’s and his ill choices and the growing realization of what he is actually doing.

The price in the book is both Travis’ family and his own life, which I think is a very good choice. Fuck happy endings. The ending as is now will have complete different emotional impacts depending on which direction is chosen. Both probably horrifying and heart-tearing.

The horror

In some senses this is a horror-story. It has been described somewhere as a very dark book (to write) or period (to write in). Unfortunately I cannot find that quote anymore.

I think it could have been darker. Not with more fireworks, but from the characters themselves. The choices they make. the matters of virtue touched by — for instance — the organ harvesting.

The direction chosen

Travis: The chosen direction is kind of “somewhere”. Travis needs to do something. He makes choices. But many choices by Travis remain to me — as indicated before — superficial and very close to: “because that is (in) the story” instead of: “because that is what Travisis driven by”.

Family: The trouble in the family has a reason and is well worked-out, but lacks a deeper binding where they could have shown the deeper parts of Travis: increasing even the impact of the choices the people in the book make.

Chavez: Chavez is playing an important role in the book, but some parts are a bit predictable (organs, people acting differently) and even feel contrived (why take revenge? Why in that way? Because… horror?).

Lines: The horror of a family breaking down, Travis sliding down the slope, Travis ignoring all that is really relevant and really there (Sharon, their son) remains on the surface. The reveal at the end (related to their son and everything else) remains at the surface as well.

Conclusion

With all my remarks, you might think I do / did / might not like the book.

I did. I do. For a debut with a big publisher (after two previous books with smaller publishers) Olde Heuvelt did a very decent job and the work shows a lot of promise.

I will read “Hex” (published this year: 2013) probably later this week. And that will tell me how far Olde Heuvelt has grown in the five years after “Apprentice wizard, father and son).

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