Book Review: Fourth Wall
Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown
A reality-puncturing, boundary-breaking monster hunt across war-torn Afghanistan
Thomas Jett, a lawyer and reserve US Army officer, is tasked with investigating suspicious events in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan: a village has been wiped out and an American soldier gone missing. Before long another settlement is mysteriously attacked, and the confusing evidence indicates a new enemy may have entered the field of combat.
But perhaps the foe isn’t new at all.
Jett’s interpreter, Kochi, suspects a jinn, an ancient spirit of smoke and fire, is responsible, and he isn’t alone in this opinion. Jett assembles a multinational team to hunt down and destroy whoever/whatever is responsible for the attacks.
However, as the name implies, The Fourth Wall is about something else entirely: probing the very nature of reality and circumventing barriers to enlightenment. The story is Jett’s journey toward occult power. “I was working hard to test my own boundaries. I was looking at the bigger picture. So should you, reader.”
Jett’s lifelong mission has been to acquire supernatural knowledge. His intuition tells him wartime conditions will lead him to insights unobtainable in any other way. A stateside witch’s magician tarot card becomes his talisman, and Yvonne, a Russian woman who understands his need to know the unknowable, becomes his guide.
He encounters several other people who also point the way, but the most important is Digger, a soldier reported missing soon after Jett arrives in Kandahar. Digger’s journals indicate they are kindred spirits, both searching for whatever is on the other side of the fourth wall.
Another area of commonality for the two men is roleplaying games. Digger’s journals describe his occult investigations in terms of roleplaying adventures. Jett continues this practice as he tries to make sense of the evidence from the village attacks and his astral travels to probe the fourth wall. He also uses his gamemaster skills to devise a plan to hunt down the entity that menaces the material plane.
In part two of The Fourth Wall, the story plotline and Jett’s personal metaphysical journey intertwine as his team travels to Kunduz, the site of a new atrocity. It’s a dense, adventure-filled pilgrimage. Violent encounters feed into Jett’s growing powers as his imagination and abilities stoke the action. In a well-earned yet surprising turn of events, a crisis twist reveals yet another layer of magical machinations.
Jett sustains a head injury early in the story, complicating, or perhaps enriching, his occult explorations. His metaphysical speculations get wilder and wilder even as he experiences headaches and other signs of trauma. The Fourth Wall is told from Jett’s point of view, so we only have Jett’s opinion of other people’s motivations and opinions; he could be entirely delusional about everything. This hint of ambiguity is perfect for this sort of tale. It gives the story a decidedly Lovecraftian vibe. Yet mindful of its own complexity, The Fourth Wall frequently recaps Jett’s issues and decisions in order to keep the reader grounded in both storylines: the village murder investigation and Jett’s own agenda to parkour the fourth wall.
The book has an engaging voice in Captain Thomas Jett, full of quips and wry humor. Slyly pushing fiction’s fourth wall, the story often addresses the reader directly to comment on events. “Digger was a strange one, and what entertainment would all this be without a strange one? And all this time you thought I was the weird one, reader.”
Each supporting character, even the dead bodies (!), are unique, lively, and well-rendered individuals. The details of military life are convincing and settings evocative.
A story such as this one must maintain a delicate balance between the philosophical interior life (the internal conflict) of the point-of-view character and the concrete events that make up a plot (the external conflict). For the most part, the tale performs this acrobatic feat successfully. However, sometimes Jett’s thoughts overwhelm the forward movement of story.
Roleplaying gamers will identify with Digger and Jett and enjoy the merger of game worldbuilding and mundane reality. The Fourth Wall is recommended for any reader who enjoys unique and imaginative speculative fiction, as well as those intrigued by tales informed by military settings and the high stakes of wartime.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Sci-Fi & Fantasy / Military
Print Length: 354 pages
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