‘Leviathan’ Will Pull You in with a Hook

Reviews | | Wednesday, April 23, 2014 at 3:00 am
In this frenetically savage thriller, an evil creature of incredible power drives characters into the arms of that Being Who is mightier still.
"Leviathan" by James Byron Huggins

Don’t let the pathetic cover fool you.

It’s been a sad century for dragons. Though they’ve proliferated throughout genre fiction and attained a semblance of life thanks to the wonders of CGI, so often it seems that something vital has been lost in the shuffle. From Toothless to Saphira, the modern iteration of that terrifying serpent whose image was for millennia emblazoned upon the collective imagination of humanity has succumbed to Disneyfication. Modern dragons hold polite conversation, accept riders, and bless mankind with ancient magics. Gone is that stark naked horror which wafted before a “moonlit shape coming down from the mist-laden fens as the atol angengea, the terrifying solitary one.” Gone, too, is that awestruck reverence once reserved for the mighty who dared face monsters. We now possess no yardstick by which to measure their valor. Gone is the nightmare, replaced by a daydream.

Were you underwhelmed by Smaug’s cinematic desolation? Did you crave something more … effectual? And what of those who would defy such a threat? Is it your dream to see the Norse god of thunder redeemed from paganism to more perfectly embody the likeness of his archetypical Heroic Model? Do you like military-industrial conspiracies, clandestine sci-fi experimentation, cat-and-mouse pursuits through sprawling subterranean fortresses? And do you secretly wish someone a little more story-savvy shared Michael Bay’s fondness for unnecessarily large explosions?

Then do I have a book for you.

It’s a mixture of Predator, Reign of Fire, and That Hideous Strength, with a dash of Tron thrown in for good measure. It’s a titanic, thunderous, knock-down-drag-out confrontation between good and evil, love and hate, unshakable courage and unstoppable rage. It’s a raw, savage, passionate vision of apocalyptic conflict nearly choked by its own superfluous verbosity, which somehow manages to transcend failures of diction through sheer zeal, reaching imperfectly for a sense of poetry to which few dare aspire in this self-conscious era. Like the Book of Job which first profiled the titular beast, Leviathan is an ode to power. And it’s gloriously, shamelessly Christian.

James Byron Huggins’ novel unfolds on the fictitious, ice-shrouded island of Grimwald, situated north of the Arctic Circle between Iceland and Norway. Perforated with lava tubes, this isolated bastion has become the cradle for a creature concocted via a potent cocktail of pseudoscience and latent genetic memory: a flame-throwing, impenetrably-armored, double-decker-bus-sized reptile capable of charging at 145 miles per hour and sustaining an internal resting temperature of 326 degrees Fahrenheit, whose synapses fire five times faster than those of a human, and whose brain has been neurally programmed with a vast tactical tutelage.

Got all that? There’ll be a test. It’s kinda pass/fail.

This cooped-up force of nature was intended by its inventors as a test case for technology with the potential to cure cancer, and by its funders as an unstoppable, untraceable weapon of global political domination. But altruistic aspirations and conceited schemes must alike defer to the “king over all the sons of pride,” for Leviathan, independent of human design, has developed a mind of its own.

It escapes containment of course, and, incited by a malevolence baffling to its erstwhile masters, begins laying waste to everything and everyone. Trapped with the terror in a tangle of tunnels by an automatic lockdown, a desperate band comprised of scientists, soldiers, a resourceful electrician, and his computer-programmer wife must defy certain death. Oh, and there’s Thor, too. But we’ll get to him in a bit. What follows are 200 pages of unrelenting action driven by taut choreography and ridiculously high stakes. If once the monster gives the island the slip, nothing but a nuclear blast will be able to put it down. It’s do-or-die time for Team Grimwald, and, due to acts of ill-conceived posterior-covering by incompetent authority-figures, no help is on its way.

Stylistically, the novel is a decidedly mixed bag. Huggins betrays his enthusiasm at every possible opportunity, piling on the abstract modifiers until even simple sentences feel laughably distended. The words “immediately” and “instantly” cease to convey meaning. “Murderous” and “mushrooming” become throwaway adjectives. To be fair, part of this is due to the fact that tension escalates swiftly and then plateaus in thin atmosphere for the remainder of the narrative. And I can’t get too perturbed, because, miraculously, the story doesn’t suffer from its unvaried and bloated vocabulary. The pacing is too breathless, the syntax too seamless, the plotting too precise, the characterization too lifelike, and the dialog (aside from some clunky data-dumps up front) too natural to let me stall out in annoyance. At its height, the language lapses into a kind of cinematic surrealism, streaming the characters’ consciousnesses in fragmented fever-dreams reminiscent of Frank Peretti Climax Mode.

But it’s Huggins’ deft dance with theme which truly thrills me. Page one plunges the reader into moodiness so thick it could be cut with a bladed weapon, introducing us to a hulking figure who stands alone upon the frigid strand, staring intently into the distance, epitomizing mythic manhood, embodying “the image of a Teutonic frost giant of old, or a Viking sea king loosed from the corridors of time.” He’s eight feet tall, hunts mountain goats for a living, and resides in an ancient, abandoned tower. He knows dozens of languages and talks history and philosophy with ease. He keeps a double-bladed battle-axe suspended over his mantlepiece. His name, superfluously, is Thor.

My friends, it is this man — this man — who is the novel’s Christian.

That fact alone should tell us something about the story’s thematic substance. Specifically, that it ain’t no morality play. Yes there’s a lot of talk, mainly from Thor himself, about good and evil and the ubiquity of their dissonance. But Leviathan, ultimately, is a battle of wills, a trial of strength, not some appeal to abstract principles or the nebulous “power of love.” For the purposes of the novel, love is epitomized not primarily by Thor the man of God but by Jackson Conner the resourceful electrician, a deeply empathetic agnostic who yearns for a better life and fights like a rabid animal to safeguard his family. Connor’s noble-yet-narrow paganism is thrown into sharp relief by the brightness of Thor’s myth-tinged Christianity, by the man’s fierce devotion to that heroic ideal captured in the tableau etched upon his axe-blade: a winged warrior grappling a galactic dragon amid the heavens. By his willingness to run toward danger instead of fleeing from it, by his readiness to exhaust his immense strength in a seemingly futile cause, Thor attests to an eternal hope that’s honed his soul for battle.

Connor fights evil because his survival depends on it. Thor voluntarily seeks out evil to destroy. It’s a reversal of the prudently-fearful-Christian-versus-recklessly-bold-Viking historical-fiction stereotype. The distinction between these two isn’t a matter of morals; they’re both admirable men. Instead, their disparity is one of power. And this makes me very happy.

In the Book of Job, God gives no justification for His actions. When Job accuses Him of injustice and demands an airing of grievances, God responds not with patient explanation but with a whirlwind of rhetorical questions. Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord? Who can open the doors of his face? Around his teeth is terror. His back is made of rows of shields, shut up closely as with a seal. Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail, nor the spear, the dart, or the javelin. He counts iron as straw, and bronze as rotten wood. On earth there is not his like, a creature without fear. No one is so fierce that he dares stir him up.

“Who then is he who can stand before Me?”

In other words, might makes right. And none is mightier than God. To nothing higher than Himself does God appeal. His kingdom consists not in talk but in power. Thus, if man finds it impossible to defeat Leviathan, a mere creature, it follows that man possesses no means to contravene the will of God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein lurks. “Is it logical for a created being to be greater than its creator?” screams one of Huggins’ heroes during a climactic scene. “What is the final purpose of life? Answer the question!” Thor knows the answer, believes it even in the face of death. And we, with Connor the noble pagan, look on in transfixed awe.

Only the fear of God can swallow that evoked by the dragon in the darkness. For the Almighty alone makes Leviathan His pet.

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By day Austin is a media production professional, by night a reader and writer of fantasy. He resides in the Pacific Northwest with the wife of his youth.

5 responses

  1. Tim Frankovich says:

    While I consider “Rora” to be Huggins’ masterpiece, “Leviathan” is one of my favorites. It sort of takes some of the concepts of Jurassic Park to the extreme.

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  2. What’s interesting about this is that Huggins actually published his books in secular, mass-market format over twenty years ago. He is one of the few who did go out into the secular market, yet he never really got known. He’s pretty good if you like a Dekker/Crichton hybrid of sorts.
    dmdutcher’s recent blog: Five Series I’m Staying With, Spring 2014My Profile

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  3. If there were ever to be a “best of Speculative Faith round-up,” this review should be in it. One of the best I’ve read.

    In other words, might makes right.

    A controversial statement that I’m sure reflects a theme from Leviathan. I wouldn’t bother to argue against it, except that it gives me the excuse I’m looking for to promote an academic paper I came across about Tolkien’s views and themes compared with Postmodernism:

    https://bearspace.baylor.edu/Ralph_Wood/www/tolkien/Tolkien%20and%20Post-Modernism.pdf

    In the paper, Ralph C. Wood explains Tolkien’s rejection of the Nazi’s might-makes-right interpretation of Germanic myth by means of the fatalism and epic loss in the mythology. Power leads to corruption.

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    • You’re too kind, bainespal. Thanks!

      And thanks for the linked article. As an amateur Tolkien scholar, I loved it (though I disagreed with swaths of it due to its ironically-hegemonic imposition of philosophical metanarrative and a lack of attention to the text, to wit: Frodo’s providentially-redeemed failure at Mount Doom is immediately followed by the gloriously excessive celebration at the Field of Cormallen, most of the Nine Walkers are chosen as purely multicultural representatives, they are, not having known each other prior to the Council of Elrond, bound by the abstract principle of opposition to Sauron, etc. etc.). Mm-mmm … meaty! Takes me back to the days when I and a likeminded covey spent whole evenings reading symbolic meaning into every jot and tittle of the Legendarium. It also expanded my vocabulary. Fructifying, indeed! ;-)

      I’m glad that someone, at least, found that statement controversial. I half-intended it to spark debate. It does reflect a theme from Leviathan — albeit a subtle one. But that’s not the reason I asserted it; I did so to provide an interpretation of the Book of Job, in which God allows horrific catastrophe to befall His most loyal human servant and then, in response to that man’s indignation, thunders on about His superiority and might until Job repents in dust and ashes. What other takeaway is there to be had?

      Since I try my best to base my worldview entirely upon direct revelation whenever possible, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that there’s nothing higher than God. No other gods, no universal ideals, no logical proofs, no abstract principles, nothing. God is the Be All and End All, the ultimate Source and Definition of reality. God isn’t good because goodness is good; goodness is good because God is good. Thus, goodness is defined as what God is and does. It’s a logical non-sequitur for me to say to God, “You should do X because it’s good!” Were I to do so, I’d be elevating an abstract conception of goodness to a higher plane of existence than the Person of God Himself. God is judged by no one. He does whatever He wills. And, whether I like it or not, what He wills is good. Goodness doesn’t define God; God defines goodness.

      It’s in this sense that I say “might makes right.” It’s an assertion that can’t be divorced from its follow-up: none is mightier than God. This is no “universal principle” higher than God Himself; it’s a principle that begins and ends with God. God created the universe, and for that reason alone is eminently deserving and capable of its rule. He doesn’t deserve to rule because He’s morally “better” than everyone else — such an assertion would imply that God competes for authority under rules which apply equally to all, and we know that God brooks no competition and plays by no rules but His own. Instead, He deserves to rule by virtue of His preeminent power.

      Might makes right, and none is mightier than God. In other words, God makes right.

      That’s a notion to which I daresay Tolkien would’ve subscribed.
      Austin Gunderson’s recent blog: An End to the MeansMy Profile

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      • Christian Jaeschke says:

        Austin, I loved your Noah movie review and I’m loving this book review of yours. You sell it so well. The result: Leviathan sounds like my kind of book, so I’m going to check it out. Cheers, mate!

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