Review by C.J. Bunce
In novels by the late Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, the authors tended to start with a smattering of disparate events and a group of experts in different areas, political, scientific, whatever was needed to twist in new plot threads colliding into some unlikely confluence by novel’s end. In Gillian Anderson’s first novel A Vision of Fire, Book One of the “Earthend Saga” and the inaugural work from Simon and Schuster’s new Simon451 imprint, she and Clancy-universe author Jeff Rovin build a similar framework. But instead of following several characters we are introduced to one, a psychiatrist named Caitlin O’Hara, a doctor focused on mental issues of young people and single mother of a deaf son. Using the advantages of modern communications technology, Caitlin must develop expertise in other fields, pulling together bits and pieces needed to attempt to connect what is behind a storm of seemingly unrelated bizarre events.
The novel’s contemporary New York setting is witness to a conflict similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis–two warring factions: India and Pakistan, are on the brink of nuclear war. The international community is closely watching a negotiation between the countries, and the Indian ambassador to the United Nations is thought to be the one person who can calm tensions. After an assassination attempt on the ambassador is witnessed by his teenaged daughter, she begins acting as if she is possessed, making strange movements and speaking in what could be ancient tongues. Caitlin’s long-time friend pulls her into the girl’s case and she begins treating the girl, and soon notices other youths experiencing similar traumas across the globe. Animals in proximity to the teens are also acting in unusual ways. A coincidence?
Elsewhere a team uncovers a metal artifact in an underwater expedition. The artifact carries some unknown energy with it, and soon death begins to follow, something like the curse of King Tut’s tomb. With mysticism like that found in The Fifth Element, body possessions similar to that of Skeleton Key and The Intruders, and acts of the long dead affecting lives in the present as in The Fog and The Others, Anderson’s world is part science fiction, part supernatural thriller.
Gillian Anderson began the project as a possible springboard to a TV or film vehicle for herself, and fans of her role as Scully on The X-Files will find a familiar character with Caitlin, who is intentionally similar in look and age to the actress. Like Scully, Caitlin is grounded in the scientific process, yet unlike Scully she is pretty quick to explore supernatural explanations for what she is seeing. Anderson’s character delves into a broad array of cultural encounters not surprising to come from the mind of the star of the recent TV series Bleak House, Moby Dick, and Great Expectations. Caitlin is not just a doctor along for the ride to debunk all things fantastical.
Where the novel brings together many interesting dimensions, its focus on a single character’s pursuit means Anderson and Rovin must pull together a lot of things that feel like coincidences, or at least connections that seem a little tenuous or contrived to move the story forward. Some time is given to a romantic relationship between Caitlin and United Nations friend Ben, but their relationship seems a tad forced. The story also repeatedly dips back to Caitlin in working mom role, which tends to slow down the action. By the end of this first book in a series, we know what Caitlin knows with respect to her profession, but little about what really makes her tick.
A good first effort for Anderson, A Vision of Fire blends elements of a TV mystery with several genre tropes, cover-up conspiracies, visions of ancient civilizations, psychic interconnections, telepathy, voodoo. Anderson cannot escape the influence of The X-Files, having lived the character for 10 years plus two follow-on big-screen movies. The otherworldly elements of several episodes are infused within the pages of this novel, intentionally or not. Like the seemingly unrelated global events that result in the alien landing in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (shared visions of Devil’s Tower, a returned lost fleet of planes, musical notes appearing across the globe, etc.), readers will be enticed to attempt to predict which elements will ultimately be behind all the novel’s conflicts in coming books.