Books Reviews

Book Review: Fringe – The Zodiac Paradox – Walter Bishop Is Back, Crazy As Ever

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What do you mean we live on in book form? But the show has been over for months now. Isn’t our adventure – misadventure old friend – done?
*The Following is a Spoiler-Free Review of Christa Faust‘s Fringe-The Zodiac Paradox*

Fringe began its life as a slight X-Files knock-off with more fore grounded daddy issues.  As the show found its own identity, placed the relationship between father and son Walter and Peter at the heart of the show, and further developed a wonderfully twisty serialized plot, it became something far more than it was when it began.  Then in the penultimate season the plot erased Peter from existence thus erasing from history most everything we had seen on the show to that point, and in the final season any pretense of episodic storytelling was abandoned in favor for a plot entirely hinged on a casualty paradox and somewhat regrettable villains.  Of course, this is exactly the type of ambitious storytelling which ensures a show a cult-like following while failing to attain wide appeal, and the Fringe fans have missed main characters Walter, Olivia, and Peter since probably before the series finale even aired earlier this year.

By the time the show reached its conclusion, we had learned quite a bit more about the backgrounds of all the characters.  We even got the somewhat standard “hey, it turns out they actually knew each other when they were kids but just don’t remember it” storyline for Peter and Olivia.  However, there are still certain events which went told rather than shown and other areas that remain total mysteries.  For example, what happened between the time Walter and William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) first met and the time they created Massive Dynamics?  When exactly did Nina Sharp come into the mix?

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How did these two meet? Also, what he’s smoking in the picture-Totally medicinal, right?

Into this void comes Christa Faust and her trilogy of Fringe prequel novels, each of which focuses upon one of the primary characters: Walter, Olivia, and Peter.  The first of these prequels, Fringe-The Zodiac Paradox, came out earlier this month.  It focuses upon Walter Bishop, arguably the show’s most popular character.  Here is the synopsis from the book’s publisher, Titan Books:

SYNOPSIS
What Is Fringe?

Critically acclaimed Fringe explores new cases with endless impossibilities. Set in Boston, the FBI’s Fringe Division started when Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) enlisted institutionalized “fringe” scientist Walter Bishop (John Bishop) and his globe-trotting, jack-of-all-trades son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), to help in an investigation of an airline disaster that defied human logic. A brand-new original novel set in the Fringe universe.

What Is The Basic Plot for The Zodiac Paradox?

In 1974, University students Walter Bishop and William Bell test an exotic chemical compound, attempting to link their subconscious minds. The result is beyond all expectations—a rip in space, opening the way between two universes. Through the rift comes a menace unlike any our world has ever imagined and it falls to Bishop, Bell, and their ally Nina Sharp to stop him.

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The Zodiac Paradox is part of the rich tradition of film/TV novelizations, and tie-in books which tell original stories using characters created in a film or TV show.  However, aren’t these a somewhat lesser form of storytelling?  I remember once attempting to read a properly published tie-in novel for Star Trek: Voyager and wondering how it was that I had unwittingly ended up with barely disguised lesbian fan fiction involving Seven of Nine and Captain Janeway exploring a love that dare not speak its name (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Beyond any 50 Shades of Grey-style worries, the main concern is that such books are typically written by individuals with no connection to the original film or TV show thus presenting the risk of not completely capturing the voice of the characters.  This can result in an awkward reading experience in which you frequently struggle to imagine the characters you know from the film or show ever behaving or speaking in the manner described in the book.

Well, nuts to that. With The Zodiac Paradox, Christa Faust has completely captured the voice of John Noble’s Walter Bishop.  Ms. Faust so perfectly nails the character’s childlike nature and occasionally stilted speech patterns that viewers of the show will easily imagine the lines being delivered by John Noble as he, in character, undoubtedly chews on a red licorice whip.  Additionally, her background as an award-winning hardboiled crime novelist translates to a breathlessly paced, compulsively readable story with an unexpectedly enjoyable exploration of the mind of a serial killer.  Moreover, this is intended to be official canon for the Fringe universe meaning she worked closely with the people at the actual show on the book.

As indicated in the plot synopsis, the story centers on Walter Bishop and William Bell (and eventually Nina Sharp) over 30 years prior to the events of the television show. It is primarily about them tracking down a killer, and making significant scientific advances in the process, each of which will sound very familiar to viewers of the show. At times, the plot moves so fast it is played for intentional comedy that they need to stop and sleep as we’ve followed them every waking hour and not noticed they had yet to sleep.

You enigmatic bastard.
You enigmatic bastard.

All of the characters are instantly recognizable, although don’t expect to learn too much more about William Bell as he remains mostly as enigmatic here as he did when played by Leonard Nimoy on the show.  We are offered some insight into Nina’s psyche, but the real stars of the book are Walter Bishop and the rather unexpected villain Allen, whose identity is tied to the title but I shall say no more.  Ms. Faust deploys a ridiculously effective structure of alternating her chapters so that we focus on Walter and his team for a chapter and then Allen and then Walter and so on.  The story is told in the third person, but has the feel of being told from the points of view of Walter and Allen.  When the alternating chapter structure is dropped, for plot reasons, in the novel’s final third it is sadly missed.

The breathless pacing does eventually falter, around the time the Allen-centric chapters stop, and so many new characters are introduced so close to the conclusion that it does try the reader’s patience.  However, the patience is rewarded by a rather satisfying and remarkably clever conclusion.

There are certainly elements which can be nitpicked.  One does wonder why exactly this young version of Walter is so similar to the one we know and love, even though the show explained that Walter in the past had been so wreckless and capable of cruelty he underwent a surgical operation which rendered his personality closer to what we see on the show.  Perhaps that will be explored in one of the future prequels, with Ms. Faust arguing Walter only became that colder, irresponsible person after his adventures with William Bell.  Furthermore, Walter and his group do occasionally behave rather foolishly, although older Walter from the show usually had his gritty son Peter and FBI field agent Olivia to curb any such impulses.  So, maybe Faust isn’t too far off.  Plus, I have to admit that there are a couple of groan-inducing references to the Fringe canon, such as a rather on-the-nose line from Nina about someday running a business with William Bell.

When reading the book, just imagine Walter with this hair but far fewer wrinkles.
When reading the book, just imagine Walter with this hair but far fewer wrinkles.

However, this is an incredibly fun and surprisingly fast read.  Christa Faust has taken on the show’s most popular character in her first novel set in the Fringe universe, and proved herself up to the challenge.  I might be in the minority of readers actually wanting to see more about Allen, the non-canonical villain she created for the novel.  Perhaps it is a perfect combination.  Ms. Faust’s take on the Fringe universe made me want to re-watch the show, and her unique, original take on the mindset of a killer impressed me so much I wanted to check out some of her hard-boiled crime novels, like the award-winning Money Shot.  That’s a win-win.

That’s Good: Walter, William, and Nina are all instantly recognizable; the integration of real history with fiction is ingenious; a formidable and compelling villain; references to Fringe canon are usually subtle enough to not alienate readers less familiar with the show; a fun read with most chapters structured to end on a cliffhanger thus forcing you to turn the page.

That’s Bad: Some of the references to Fringe canon are a little too on the nose; the last third struggles a bit to maintain the forward momentum, especially when the structure of cutting back and forth between the heroes and the bad guy is abandoned; many new characters are introduced in the last act and pull focus a little to much from the already established characters, although one suspects this might be setting up characters/events for the sequel.

Can I Go Now?: In addition to authoring media tie-in novels and hardboiled, pulp-y crime novels, Christa Faust  has had several interesting other jobs, like working as a Times Square peepshow girl and a dominatrix.  

The Zodiac Paradox is available at Amazon, among various other retailers, or directly from the publisher at Titan Books.  You can read the first chapter in its entirety at Titan Books.

The follow-up to The Zodiac Paradox is entitled The Burning Man, and will focus upon Olivia as a teenager.  It is due out on July 16, 2013.  You can pre-order it at Amazon, among various other retailers, or directly from the publisher at Titan Books.

Full Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of The Zodiac Paradox provided to this site for review purposes by Titan Books.

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