Book Review: Portent, by James Herbert

Portent was my first read by legendary author James Herbert. While I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of his work, Portent was a mixture of good and bad for me with a direction that pulls readers all over the place while never really coming to a logical, and believable, conclusion. The premise seemed top notch–the world’s weather takes a turn for the worse and her citizens must scramble to understand why. It’s too bad Mr. Herbert seemed to zig when he should have zagged as the second half of the book didn’t read like it belonged attached to the first half. With that being said, there were aspects of this book I enjoyed. Unfortunately, there were just as many aspects of this book that I didn’t enjoy.

PortentFrom the publisher:

First there are the lights: strange, alluring, eerily beautiful, floating up as if from the heart of the planet itself. Then, moments later, the disasters: coral reefs exploding into shrapnel, cloud banks bursting with torrential floods, killer hailstorms, tsunamis, vicious flash fires. From San Francisco to the Indian city of Varanasi, from the gentle Dorset hills to the Great Barrier Reef, the earth is spewing destruction and humans are dying hideous, excruciating deaths. For climatologist James Rivers, it seems almost as if the planet itself is angry. And then he meets the children and he learns that the horrifying truth exceeds even his most unthinkable private terrors…

Come into the light…all are welcome…

Mr. Herbert paints a vivid picture of the end of the world. His descriptions were often lucid and crisp, bringing beauty to these natural disasters. The plot starts out simple enough as strange orbs of light are seen before each natural disaster. The meteorological experts of the world scramble to discover the cause of these strange occurrences. Our main character, Jim Rivers, a British climatologist, finds himself on a forced vacation due to stress instead of doing what he does best. This made no sense to me whatsoever. One of the world’s experts on climate is forced to leave as the proverbial shit hits the fan. Huh? And that’s where I think Portent fails, the pieced together feeling plot.

I enjoyed most of the natural disaster scenes. In fact, many of them read like self contained short stories in the midst of Portent’s main plotline. They were often a welcomed change of pace. From the depths of the ocean, all the way to the Scottish Highlands, Mr. Herbert places his readers in the middle of the action. These well written sections often stood out as crisply written and helped bring a planet wide sense of doom to a story that needed to feel as big as possible to work. Readers will believe the world is changing from the inside out. Well done.

Much of the first half of the book read like it was building toward something. It was easy for readers to see how scientists took a stab at understanding these strange occurrences. It’s too bad the author didn’t keep readers on that track. Without spoiling too much of the book, I’ll say he tried to make these occurrences more personal by giving opposing forces of good and evil names and faces. It was a stretch at best and, in my opinion, took away from the wonderfully written first half of the book. It almost seemed like he didn’t know how to explain the weather, or how to wrap up the plot, and came up with something that felt out of place.

I also didn’t care for how often readers were reminded of how skeptical certain characters were about certain things. It seemed to pop up over and over again, and at inopportune times. Then we get to the point where a character who believed most of what was going on all along suddenly had trouble taking that last little step in believing everything. It just didn’t make any sense and left me frustrated.

The pacing also suffers. Whole sections left me wondering why the author chose to explore backstory when action should be taking place. Toward the end of the book, when our heroes are told to go somewhere as fast as possible, only to stop and try to plead with the powers that be about what’s really going on with the weather made no sense at all. The last hundred and twenty pages of the book became a chore to get through as it felt like characters were running in place. The sense of urgency was established, yet no one seemed to be moving with any urgency at all.

The ending was laughable and left me shaking my head. It seemed too convenient and didn’t fit in with the beginning of the book. To that point, Portent almost reads like two different plot lines smashed into one–the first being about the world wide weather disasters, and the second being about the caretakers of the planet (good vs. evil).

I did, however, appreciate Mr. Herbert’s message that us humans need to be more responsible with our planet. He doesn’t beat readers over the head with it, but, rather, lays it on them slowly, and with purpose. I like books that get you thinking.

All in all, Portent was a decent book that never really establishes its identity. Is it a book about natural disasters? Is it a book about the end of days? Is it a book about the forces of good versus the forces of evil duking it out for control of the planet? The answer to each of these questions is “yes.” And I think that’s a major problem. Without a solid direction, readers are left to wander through a saggy plot line on their own. It really is a shame because Mr. Herbert’s writing can be quite spectacular at times.

What I liked:

  • The story ideas. Mr. Herbert uses natural disasters in a cool way and utilizes orbs of light to precede them. This makes for some great “oh shit” moments. When readers stumble across an orb of light, they know something bad is about to happen.
  • The scope. Readers really do get a sense of destruction on a global scale. Mr. Herbert takes readers to places like Sri Lanka, India, and even Los Angeles. It’s easy for readers to believe every citizen, of every country is affected by these natural disasters.
  • The beginning. I was easily drawn into Mr. Herbert’s world with crisp descriptions and solid action. I wanted to know what happened next.
  • The message. Mr. Herbert did a nice job with his (mostly) underlying message that people are bad to the planet. I didn’t mind, and appreciated his fictional warning. (I say mostly because the last page is a direct finger wagging.)

What I didn’t like:

  • The meandering plot. It never really felt like Portent had a specific identity. Readers are tugged in several different directions and by the end of the book are left trying to piece together what kind of story they just finished.
  • The ending. I skimmed much of the last hundred pages. Too often I found a lack of logical thinking with these characters. Characters would often do the opposite of what readers were led to believe they should be doing, without a logical explanation.
  • The characters motivation. There were times where characters should have been scrambling to get places, yet showed no sense of urgency. If somebody told me to get home before my loved ones were harmed, I would get home as fast as I could. Not these characters. They made a stop to talk about what’s been happening first, even though the fate of the world may rest on their shoulders. Too often character’s reasons for their actions didn’t make any sense.
  • The pace. There are times where this book slows to a crawl as characters rehash their doubts about things they’ve already expressed doubts about. This happens over and over again. We get it, you don’t know if you believe what your eyes just saw. Long stretches of character introspection kill the pacing.
  • The good versus evil aspect. I can’t delve too deeply into this. I will say that it came across as laughable and unbelievable. It was supposed to be whole factions, on a world wide scale, yet we only get a handful of players to follow. It never felt like a viable piece of the plot, and seemed like a convenient way to wrap up the already broken plot line.

Overall: I’m giving Portent, by James Herbert, two and a half out of five stars. Portent is an average book that could have been so much better. While the natural disasters were crisply written, much of this book felt disjointed due to a lack of a solid identity. Mr. Herbert had some great ideas that never really panned out. In my opinion, if he would have focused on one major plotline instead of several, this book would have read much more smoothly. Repetitious sections of characters questioning their beliefs really bogged the pace down and painted them in an annoying light. Unless you’re a fan of Mr. Herbert, or apocalyptic fiction, you may want to steer clear of this one.

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