Lorthyne's Podcast Review: 7th Son
7th Son is a science fiction thriller written and read by budding novelist J.C. Hutchins. This is the first of many reviews of my latest boredom-suppressing form of media: podcasts. Most of the podcasts I'll be reviewing are role-playing specific, but there will be several, this one included, that are audiobooks distributed in the podcast format.
"The President of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a 4-year-old boy:"
So begins the prologue of Descent, the first book of the 7th Son Trilogy. Written by J.C. Hutchins, 7th Son is a science fiction thriller set in the modern day, distributed as a free serialized audiobook. In other words, Hutchins wrote 7th Son and chose to release it in an audio format to see if the novel had an audience. Hutchins has since attracted a huge following and 7th Son: Descent is scheduled for publication in 2009.
The novel follows the story of seven men who are mysteriously, and, on occasion, violently, gathered by the U.S. government. These men quickly discover that they share the same name, John Michael Smith, and look almost identical to one another. Not only do they appear to be the same man, they soon realize that they also have the same childhood memories, everything from being raised by the same parents in Indiana to a first kiss (all with the same girl) at a homecoming football game.
It is soon revealed that these seven men are unwitting participants of a beyond-secret government cloning experiment known as 7th Son. They have been brought together to stop the man responsible for the death of the president, who also happens to be the same man they were cloned from, code-named John Alpha.
Although 7th Son has a vaguely "A-Team" feel to it, it doesn't ever wax campy or even unrealistic. The technology and events in the novel seem plausible enough, and Hutchins does a fantastic job of realistically integrating science fiction technology into the modern world.
It would seem that with 7 protagonists, 4 major villains, and slew of supporting characters on both ends, it would be difficult to keep track of who's who in the 7th Son universe. Not so. Through both good writing and incredible voice acting, Hutchins makes every character distinct and individual. The most obvious problem, the seven clones with the same name, is solved by using different variations of the name "John Michael Smith" (John, Jack, Michael, Dr. Mike, etc.).
Each clone is highly individual, with a personality and turn of phrase that reflects their personal divergence along the many paths of John Michael Smith. Ranging from John, the blue-collar brawler, to Dr. Mike, the cocky criminal psychologist, to Killroy 2.0, the borderline psychotic hacker and cyber-prophet, each clone is different in his own way, while still reflecting the group psyche. For example, Dr Mike and John are much more prone to using offensive language than Father Thomas, the Catholic priest.
Each of the supporting characters also has a fleshed out personality, and there's an actual person behind each minor character. Likewise, all of the villains have realistic and plausible motivations and goals. None of the villains have an unexplainable desire to destroy the world, although it often so happens that global destruction and chaos is the direct result of their actions.
The Audio Presentation
J.C. Hutchins's reading of his novel is superb. Although all of the narration and voice acting is done by the author, he uses a specific accent and tone of voice for each character that makes them very distinct. Once you become accustomed to the different characters, it's easy to tell who is talking solely from the voice being used.
The podcast format for a novel can be bizarre at first, especially if, like me, this is your first podcast novel. 7th Son began broadcasting weekly in June of 2006, and was concluded in December of 2007. I only recently began listening, and so was able to listen to the entire trilogy without having to wait for an episode update. The bizarre thing about listening to 7th Son late is that you feel a little bit lost in time. Many of the "news," updates, and contests that Hutchins informs his listeners of are irrelevant in teh current time.
Hutchins also includes in his episodes a "The Story So Far" segment, usually read by a guest. This section is useful if it's been a while since you've listened to an episode, and it's short enough not to be annoying when you're listening to chapters back-to-back. The guest readers are usually other podcasters, but Hutchins somehow managed to pull a couple of pretty big names to read for him, including Nathan Fillion. Yes, you read that correctly, Nathan Fillion, Capt. Malcolm Reynolds himself, reads a recap segment for 7th Son, somewhere in the second book of the trilogy.
One of the major downsides of this podcast is that it contains a lot of material that isn't read from the novel. Hutchins can spend anywhere from 2-10 minutes of air time talking about news, updates, promos for other podcasts, and thanking his fans. While this is all well and good, it can become wearing over time, especially now that most of this is too old to be useful. These problems have been fixed for the Book Three: Destruction, with the episode files from containing only a short, pleasant intro and outro and the chapter reading itself. With the publication of Book One: Deceit planned, it might behoove the author to release condensed audio files of books One and Two, for those of us who are jumping on the bandwagon a bit late.
Edit: I received an email from Hutchins as well, and he tells me that the episodes from Podiobooks.com are completely promo and announcement free. My apologies for messing that up.
The intro and outro music for each episode is enjoyable and fitting to the novel, and it changes with each book of the trilogy, so it doesn't get old too quickly.
There are also several bonus episodes that may or may not be worth listening to, depending on your preference. I highly suggest listening to "The Twelve Days of Clonemas" and watching the "John Alpha's New Years' Resolutions" video, but not until you reach their spot in the episode feed, as they both contain some pretty major spoilers if you don't.
The biggest drawback to 7th Son is that it's in audio format. Listening to it being read aloud takes much longer than actually reading it would, and with roughly 30 minutes of audio for each episode, and about 70 episodes, 7th Son can be a pretty big time commitment. 7th Son is one of the books that will really draw you in, and so I don't recommend committing to it unless you have a long commute to work, can listen to it at work, or if you happen to have that much time on your hands. Otherwise, I would wait until it's published.
Another downside is also connected to the audio format. 7th Son has an "Explicit" tag in iTunes, and for good reason. Although there are very little sexual themes or content, 7th Son has violence and profanity in spades. It's definitely not something you want kids to be exposed to, and so it makes it difficult to listen to around the house. You may very well not want to expose yourself to it, either. Many of the characters drop "the f-bomb" on a regular basis, and almost all of them, with the exception of Father Thomas, use it in times of stress. To give you an example, Jesse Fowler, the 4-year-old presidential assassin from the prologue, only says one sentence between his incarceration and his mysterious death one week later, using four words to tell his interviewer to go copulate with his maternal figure. 7th Son is a novel that you probably want to listen to with headphones to avoid offending others, and if your schedule or work situation doesn't permit that, I suggest waiting for the published version.
Although 7th Son is a fantastic set of books, it may not be for everyone. If you're interested, you can subscribe to the 7th Son podcast feed via iTunes or another podcatcher program, or you can download episodes individually from www.jchutchins.net or www.podiobooks.com.