$3.99 from Starfire Books
Click the image of the book cover above for a direct link.
Reviewed by Andy Hollis
©2000 Andy Hollis -- all rights reserved
Transmutation Now! is the first of what we hope will be many novels from Phil Geusz, a prolific writer of short stories and occasional columnist for this magazine. In his stories, Phil has shown a consistent mastery of the art of building suspense and setting scenes and emotions with a few, well chosen words. This talent certainly holds true for this novel as the story travels from the absurd to heart pounding terror, all the while maintaining a wicked sense of humor.
Throughout the history of action-adventure stories, very few heros have been white rabbits. Aside from Lewis Carroll's famous bunny, and Harvey of the movie by the same name, Jack Strafford may be a first. He is fuzzy, cute and able to wriggle out of some very hare-raising spots.
Jack Strafford played action-adventure types in the movies, and made a brilliant career in doing so. Using his studio's vast financial resources, and the latest in technology, Jack undergoes transmutation for a once in a lifetime role. But, while Jack is changing into a real life cousin of the immortal Bugs, the economy crashes, war breaks out in the east, and the world changes dramatically for the worse.
With the studio bankrupt, the film, and Jack's chances to turn back into a human being, are wiped out; which leaves a very human, and macho actor to come to grips with being terminally cute. Luckily, his finances are reasonably secure so Jack retires and withdraws to a small southern community where he takes up house with another transmutee, a chimp named Rupert. They build an estate on a private island where Jack can avoid human contact, except for a few trips into town to collect mail and buy groceries.
Accepting his new form, complete with rabbit instincts, proves to be next to impossible for Jack, especially since someone wants him dead. After receiving a death threat, Jack and Rupert have to defend the island against an invasion of good old boys out rabbit hunting. Behind this attack is a religious fanatic that has declared Jack to be a soulless abomination that deserves to die.
After several more attacks, Jack fights back publicly by filming a live action version of Bugs Bunny with Elmer bearing a marked resemblance to the fanatic out for bunny blood. This campaign succeeds in ruining the church, but leads to a climatic confrontation between Jack and the Rev. Sutter. Eventually Sutter caves in and reveals that he is just a front for...
Well, to find out what happens next, please read the book. There are many edge of the seat moments, and each time Jack escapes from his torturers is more spectacular than the last.
Overall, this tale is an exciting and fun read, but the rough edges may occasionally make it difficult to maintain your "suspension of disbelief." Like some action stories, Transmutation Now! is, in places, dependant on plot devices rather than a well crafted plot. Also, Jack as narrator does not always believe in the old adage "show, don't tell."
In fiction, the layout strives to be "open," the page is broken with dialog, and shorter paragraphs that are easier on the eye, yet Jack is prone to introspect over several pages at a time. This type of unbroken narration makes the page appear difficult to read. These long passages tend to detract from the suspense and the pace of the action sequences and don't always advance the plot significantly. For example, early on in the book Jack tells us about the financial crash and subsequent wars, but since he is not personally affected by same nor apparently are the people around him, there isn't a feel for the hardship and changes this must have brought to the majority of the world's population. The wars serve as an explanation for why Jack cannot return to human form. Jack tells us these things happened but never really showed them and thus never made them feel real.
Just as the economic crash, and the Short Wars become plot devices, events seem to happen due to coincidence rather than development. For example, at one point Jack is under attack on his island and needs a weapon. He remembers a jeep that had been ditched earlier and uses that to save himself. If he had actually shown the scene with the jeep earlier in the story he would have had a good comic interlude and the jeep's presence would have been explained rather than have it appear as a deus ex machina to save the hero. In this case, having the bunny pull a jeep from his hat didn't work.
As a rule, short stories seem to have less character and plot development than novels and, unsurprisingly considering it's origins, this is unfortunately evident in Transmutation Now! Jack and Rupert grow and change during the story but one of the key antagonists, The Rev. Sutter, does not and thus tends to act like a stock character rather than a thinking human being. However, the main antagonist, Billy Singh, is a much more complex and fully realized character. Here is an evil genius, full of himself and his ideas, but believable, at least until the end of the story, when Singh makes a fundamental error in judgement. Singh's mistake is out of character, and thus detracts from what might otherwise be a completely satisfying conclusion.
The book's flaws, for the most part, are the same problems that plague a lot of first novels. Fortunately, these problems do not detract from the overall readability of what is, in the end, a very good story. Transmutation Now! was originally written as a series of short stories. Those stories, minimally re-edited for novelization, did not combine seamlessly as chapters in this novel, which gives the book some rough spots such as the lack of character development and, at times, the lack of a good hook from one chapter to the next.
On the up side, Transmutation Now! has some wonderful humor. It also has many segments of "edge of the seat" action-suspense. The saving grace of the novel, is the author's ability to tug on readers emotions without getting too maudlin or "warm and fuzzy". In the beginning of the novel, Jack has created his own egg shell, decorated with depression and isolation, to keep him safe from human contact. By necessity, as his life is threatened, he starts cracking that shell to find that his new shape can have a tremendous impact on children in need, and he begins finding his new calling. The scenes with Jack as host of the White House Easter Egg hunt, and as host of his own kids' show are priceless. Alternating these scenes with episodes of downright horror and brilliant escapes, Jack has told a balanced story that does not get bogged down in emotions, or in unrelenting torture.
In summary, Transmutation Now! is a fast paced, exciting and enjoyable story, an excellent first effort from a respected writer of transformation fiction, despite the occasional flaw, and lack of copy editing. I'm betting that his next novel will be even better.