It's been a mere four months since Justin Richard's last New Adventure, the sublime Tears of the Oracle. So it was with some trepidation that I approached this latest addition to the range - The Joy Device. Could the ever-prolific JR really write another winner so soon after Tears?
Well, yes actually.
Benny's had enough. Sick of all the shit she's been through recently she packs her bags and sets off to the galactic rim in search of adventure. With a new companion - the famed adventurer Dent Harper by her side they embark on a quest for the lost Dorpfeld's Prism - the Joy Device of the title. Along their way they encounter the dangerous Cartel who are determined to get their hands on the Prism at any cost. Strange considering it is said to be cursed, and responsible for the deaths of all that touch it.
Jason, Braxiatel and Clarence aren't happy about this. Worried that she might actually enjoy hanging out with the crooks and gangsters, they construct a cunning plan to give her the dullest holiday ever by intimidating the lowlife and keeping Benny out of harms way, all without her knowing it.
It sounds dumb, and in places it is. Never the less this is a joyous novel, bringing the NA's back in line with the 'Science fiction has never been this much fun' tagline one last time before the end of the series.
Dent Harper is a wonderful comic creation. An adventurer with a penchant for retelling his exploits is an old clich‚. The twist with Dent is that all his adventures really are true. He can't understand why Benny doesn't believe him. Likewise Benny is frustrated by the lack of faith he has in her. At times Dents character is reminiscent of Duggan from 'City of Death', though the book is perhaps closer to the farcical spirit of 'The Romans' with Clarence and Jason rushing about causing a minor religious fervour amongst the lowlife due of course to Clarences angelic form.
However this isn't just a comedy, and Richards never allows the jokes to interfere with the characters he is writing for. The book doesn't present a dumbing down of Bernice. It is simply that for a large part of the time she is unknowingly under the influence of a mind altering device. Like 'Return to the Fractured Planet' this is a story with a heart, and underneath all the jokes lurks a genuine message. Bernice is finding herself, coming to terms with her past and who she is, and above all learning to live again.
If I have one major criticism it is that the book occasionally drags its wafer thin plot out too much. It is obvious that Justin is aware of this as the actual adventure finishes nearly forty pages before the end of the novel, with the rest simply taken up by Jason and Clarence literally running around. Don't let this put you off though. The Joy Device is a welcome change of pace for Benny after the recent traumatic events in her life. I await the next, and sadly last (for the moment anyway) New Adventure - 'Twilight of the Gods' with baited breath.
In brief: Surprisingly underdone. A light-hearted comedy is just the ticket, yet somehow this feels strained and falls flat far too often for its own good.
There's one nice thing about Justin Richards' books: they're never stale. He has lots of really cool tricks up his authorial sleeve and over the many years and many books he's managed to hone his style into something quite polished indeed.
Which makes it all the more of a pity that he doesn't use any of the lessons learnt over the years in The Joy Device.
Okay, I appreciate the attempt to do something different, really I do. You'd be hard-pressed to guess what kind of book this would be in advance, I think. It's light, it's fluffy, it's a welcome respite from the heavy-going Gods arc, it's a last minute breather before the end.
It's also not very good and hinges around a one-note joke that isn't particularly funny to begin with, yet is pounded into us for all it's worth, and then some. It all starts with the quote on the back cover, which fails to even raise a flicker of amusement. The whole idea that Benny might enjoy herself on the frontier feels like the sort of revelation that Justin had at 3:00am while exceedingly drunk and felt the urge to explain a perfectly obvious idea in painstaking detail to any passing strangers. As the back cover does. As Jason does to Clarence. Twice. In two pages.
The first fifty pages are awful. So awful, in fact, that I honestly thought we were in for the mother of all twists from Mr Richards and the bad writing was going to be part of the wind-up. Dent's book seemed like a dead giveaway here. But sadly this is not the case.
It does get better, fortunately, but my goodness is it tough going. Demontage was a similarly light and fluffy book, but Fitz's reactions there kept it on a very humorous level the whole way through. There's nothing inherent in the NA cast to prevent this, as far as I can see, yet it really doesn't gel at all for me.
Almost every scene happens directly after the previous one, with only the occasional piece of Dent's book to break the flow. I like this idea in theory, but it needs a firmer hand to carry it off successfully. The book feels quite bland and underwhelming because of this, which is a real shame, as it's quite a refreshing change from the usual hectic style of the Bernice NAs. The historical documents and differing approaches and flash-forwards of Tears worked brilliantly for a reason. The Joy Device feels like it's been stripped to its bare essentials, only there's not a whole lot of interest left at this point.
The idea of Bernice having chunks of her past missing and parts of it existing only in diary form has a lot of potential, but frustratingly it seems to go nowhere! I recognise that in the book Justin was trying to write, a deeper analysis would seem out of place, but the one we got is crying out for *something* to liven it up (especially the boring beginning). It frustrates me no end to see potentially fascinating subjects like this dropped in favour of the ho-ho-ho, isn't-it-a-laff antics of Jason and Clarence.
What with Dave Stone rewriting the consequences of Tears of the Oracle in the previous book and now Justin casually dismissing the ending of Return to the Fractured Planet, I feel like we're locked into a surreal game of tug-o-war, with staunch Major Richards on one side and shape-shifting "Giraffe" Stone on the other. It's like two co-authors each trying to write the other into impossible cliffhangers for their own amusement, only between books for a change. It's not necessarily bad, it's just weird.
Once the action picks up, so does the book, but it never reaches anywhere near the level of interest it wants to. The comedy seems to have been squeezed out of a rock, so hard does this try to please. I suspect that this is mainly because The Joy Device shouldn't be a book at all, but a comedy episode of a normally serious Sci-Fi TV series. Most of the jokes would probably improve in the translation no end.
Clarence feels really wrong to me all through the novel. And the ending with Braxiatel isn't even *supposed* to make sense, as far as I can tell. Oh, and the resolution to something quite important is in the cover art if you look closely enough!
The more serious part of the story, such as it is, works quite well. Dent is quite good for what he's supposed to be and I really like his introduction via the novel Benny reads. The plot here works very well, with Justin's trademark skill at plotting taking over nicely. I'm loathe to say "stick to what you know", because I'm usually all for experimentation, but I guess this illustrates the very real capacity for failure that such experiments run the risk of.
All in all, The Joy Device is amusing in some places, quite good in others, but mostly frustrating the whole way through. It's a shame, after the brilliant Tears of the Oracle, that we get something this poor. The NAs have been having quite an astounding success rate; I suppose it's only natural that they'd fall flat on their face sooner or later. A shame it couldn't have waited two more books to happen, though.