Steven Barnes

Tor Books / 383 pages / 1st edition (February 1998)

ISBN: 031285708X

Is there such a thing as a “good cult”? Charitable works and smiling faces cannot be anything but positive. Right? Healing and seeming miracles should get two thumbs up, way up. Godlike beings would have nothing but civilisation’s best interests at heart. So. Maybe their followers seem a little too zealous, perhaps overly committed. Okay, so a few end up being actually committed. Is that a bad thing?

Iron Shadows explores these questions and more. (Is a spiritual group odd if its main focus is sex? Or would we all just like to be invited to the meetings?)

When private investigators “Cat” Juvell and partner and ex-husband “Jax” Carpenter are hired to locate a missing heiress, they are plunged into the world of The Golden Sun. Like the coincidentally-named “Moonies,” the Sun’s influence spreads across the globe; members own businesses and control non-profit programs to reach out to the underprivileged. Unlike the Krishnas, the Sun members aren’t recognisable on sight. Far from Heaven’s Gate, they aren’t waiting for the 4:15 suborbital. If they are dangerous, does this make them more, or less lethal?

Barnes has crafted a private eye tale with many special twists, a case different from any these characters have ever taken. Different from anything they’ve ever seen, and they’ve seen plenty. It’s gun-toting PIs and aura-sprouting miracle workers. And it’s sub-plots aplenty.

All good things, so why is it so difficult to care about any of the myriad characters in this novel? Every main character has secrets locked away where even they can no longer access them. They cannot completely connect with each other; why should we connect with them? If it is Barnes’ intention to convey the isolation experienced by Cat and the others, he succeeds magnificently. If not… oops!

And, for a book so filled with sex scenes, it is oddly non-arousing. The heat and passion on the page stays there. Again, this may be intentional on Barnes’ part. Or it may not be.

A contributing factor to the feeling of distance is the sheer WOW appeal of the characters. Cat and Jax are the best — at everything. They’re so far beyond anyone in our daily lives, they’re just so damned much better than us. They shoot better, drive like pros, think faster, and can subdue anyone with their incredible martial arts skills. They’re slim and muscular and gorgeous. Why should I worry about them? Why would any reader beyond the stage of hero worship care what happens to them? I think they can take care of themselves just fine, and, if they can’t, well, they’ve already gotten so much more from life than the rest of us…

Barnes’ writing is sharp, his story entertaining. Despite the emotional remove, it’s an engrossing read. (A word to the delicate: “gross” accurately describes the violent scenes in the book.) If you are the type who enjoys guessing at the solution to the mystery before the end of the novel, you’ll have little trouble unravelling these knots before the detectives do.

Come to think about it: maybe we do have it all over the heroes. If we just work on that lean and stunning part.