Dan Roentsch's Face of a Stranger is a strange little book. Ostensibly, it's about heroes and what it takes to be one. What's it like to do something for somebody, knowing that you won't survive to see the reaction? The book's main protagonist, Maric, has to deal with this issue both in the abstract (he's dreaming about heroes) and in real life. It's actually a very interesting take on the whole issue, but it's marred by extraneous material and some rather bland characters.
Living in a 24th century Martian colony of Edom, run by the dictatorial Eric Sheel, Maric holds a secret. A plague has infected the city ever since, and the only man with a cure was Maric's father, Harold Sevillus. Before he died, Sevillus implanted a secret message in Maric's brain, a message that Sheel is convinced is the cure. Unfortunately, it's locked up tight in Maric's memory, where even he can't access it. Sheel takes Maric in as his ward, keeping a close eye on him and trying desperately to unlock the secret. This message seems to be invading Maric's dreams, as he has continuous images of 20th century heroes in all walks of life. The book begins with Maric dreaming he's a cop who gives his life to bring down a clock-tower sniper. As Maric gets older, the dreams get worse and he has to figure out what they mean. But the message is more then either Maric or Sheel ever bargained for. In deciphering everything, Maric has to make a decision: to be a true hero, or to be forever in Sheel's clutches.
The main problem with the book is that none of the characters are exceptionally interesting. Maric's quest to discover more about himself should keep the reader enthralled, but more than once I found myself tiring of his whining and wanting him to get on with it. He's indecisive, and I just wanted to reach through the pages of the book and throttle him, telling him to get off his duff and do something. Roentsch uses Maric to discuss what a true hero is, and it's not just somebody who sacrifices his or her life for a cause. Sometimes, it comes down to making a tough choice, a choice that can force someone into a very bad situation. When Maric is mulling this over, he actually starts to become interesting. But then he starts interacting with other characters and his less interesting personality traits manifest themselves again.
None of the other characters are any better. Sheel is rather stereotypical as the villain of the piece. He threatens, he cajoles his men, and he has moves quickly from being agreeable to being harsh with Maric as the mood hits him. Ursina, Sheel's daughter and Maric's lover, is much too much like any other rich man's daughter in stories like these: flighty, demanding, pouty and, ultimately, won over (for no apparent reason in this case). Joey, Maric's childhood friend and one of Sheel's security officers, doesn't do much to enthrall either. Krace seems to be a plot device more then a character, forcing Maric to make his first real choice but ultimately not distinguishing herself otherwise. It's an interesting choice, but she doesn't bring much to it.
And then there's Kelby. He's actually not that bad, but he (and Krace) are part of a superfluous chapter that really brings the book to a screeching halt, something that's not healthy in such a short book. Kelby is one of Maric's professors, and also greatly critical of Sheel. He has some interesting exchanges with Maric, but the chapter where Maric and Krace are taking their final exams just seems completely out of place. In it, Kelby has a long internal monologue about Maric and Krace, commenting on their abilities and how they've done in his course. He then starts to think about how much he's growing infatuated with Krace, and how she appears interested in Maric. This brings on a lot of anger with Maric, but it ultimately doesn't go anywhere. I guess this was supposed to set up Krace in the reader's mind for what happens later in the book, but it doesn't really do that. Instead, it made me think this was too much of a side road to go down and I wanted to get back to the main one.
I don't want to dump on the book too much. It's apparently Roentsch's first, and it does show a lot of promise. The idea of the book is wonderful, and Maric truly is a "different" kind of hero. This is mainly due to the fact that Maric is trying to discover what a hero is and what he would do in this situation. He truly doesn't know and he's floundering. The ideas and themes discussed are interesting and I'm glad I read them. Roentsch's prose isn't too bad for a first effort, either, with only the occasional clunky bit. The same goes for his plotting and pacing. The only problems there were the above mentioned chapter and the fact that the climax of the book seemed much too sudden for what led up to it.
Still, Face of a Stranger is a worthwhile read. It's short and it's promising. I'd like to see if Roentsch can improve on it. He has his themes down pat, and if his next book is as interesting as this one was, then he should have a winner, as long as he works on the characterization issues. Improve the pacing and he'd have a home run. Give it a look if you find it.