A sense of dread accompanies the prospect of reading your friends’ writing for the purpose of a review. When they bounce ideas off you, ask for feedback, or anything else that yields in pre-publication reinforcement, it’s easy–you don’t have to own any criticisms; the recipient of said criticism can happily apply the suggestions without a sense of slight. Feedback helps to avert roadblocks, see things that wouldn’t be noticed without outside eyes. For a writer (who’s honest about bettering their craft), nothing is more valuable than good feedback–save for a good review. Fortunately for me, Canadian author Lanie More’s FATHER OF CONTENTION, the first in a four-part series, is an awesome novel from start to finish–and I don’t have to concern myself with handling it with kid gloves for my first review.
There was only ever meant to be one Creator. In 1972, German scientist Renner Scholz travels to Barbora Bay, Washington to continue his research in recombinant DNA technology. Only believing in things proven by science, his deeply held beliefs are challenged when he meets Milena Nowak, a psychic. After a whirlwind romance, Renner becomes obsessed with understanding Milena's unexplainable ability. Stumbling upon an exclusive occult ritual involving an evil spell that connects him to the spiritual realm where psychic abilities and power originate, he finds the answers he's been searching for...but at a cost. Compelled by the ritual, Renner pursues a new vein of research. He develops the genetic blueprint to produce psychic abilities in humans—creating a superhuman—without realizing he is the main player in a plot to destroy mankind. Milena senses that Renner has changed and a new darkness resides within him. Helplessly she watches as the man she loves transforms, becoming deceptive, volatile and both physically and mentally more powerful. Can Milena save Renner from this evil presence? Or will she become an unwilling participant in his next experiment—one of the darkest kinds?
Plot Overview (Warning—potential spoilers):
FATHER OF CONTENTION is broken into two parts, which are sandwiched by a prologue, an interlude, and an epilogue, written in verse and conveying the voice of a demonic presence determined to find a mortal vessel. To be honest–I’m not a huge fan of prologues because they don’t always connect to the story in a meaningful enough manner to warrant their existence. Hence, I read the prologue at the end of the first part, and appreciated the added context its presence provided, as though filling in blanks rather than setting the stage; I read the interlude and epilogue in their proper order.
Part I. covers Renner Scholz as an ethical, ambitious student determined to find success in his discipline of recombinant DNA technology as he strives to abandon brutal memories buried in his early childhood. Leaving his foster parents in Germany to continue his studies at a fictitious university in Washington state, Renner, possessing a single-minded obsession with his goals, sets on his path to acquire the academic and professional clout to inject a revolutionary impact in human health–perhaps find the cure for cancer, which ails his foster father and pushes him ever-closer toward death.
Upon arriving at his dorm, Renner is displeased to discover that, as housing is limited, he will be forced to shack up with a roommate, Paul. Paul, an arrogant slob, quickly establishes himself as a rival (being a student in the same discipline), offering mixed signals of friendship and competition during the entire span of their relationship, which extends beyond their days at the university.
It is during their time as students when Renner meets Milena Nowak, a psychic. As a scientist Renner balks at Milena’s claim to possess such powers, but after Milena provides him a reading and taps into the memories that Renner so desperately wants to hide from himself, the resolve of his doubts waver. The couple soon elope–Paul finding a way to insert himself as a witness at the court, of course.
Paul, who has marginally discussed Milena’s psychic abilities with Renner since he learns that she claims to be a clairvoyant, and has somewhat established the subject as a mainstay in their communications, invites Renner and his new wife to a ceremony hosted by a medium, claiming that the experience will explain how someone like Paul can receive such great grades with minimal effort through the reception of her spells. Renner agrees to come with Paul; after some resistance Milena agrees to attend as well. Milena watches the ceremony with dread, ultimately witnessing a dark force enter her husband (the realization of the wishes of the Demon who voices the prologue, interlude, and epilogue), which will taint his ambitions from this point forward.
During the ceremony, DMT is utilized to enhance the spiritual effects of the ritual. Once Renner has identified the chemical, he reads material professing how the properties of DMT may create a bridge to the spiritual world. Inspired by the possibilities of bridging this gap–an illuminated state of mental being–Renner concocts a plan that will test every ethical value he holds dear and threatens to corrupt his soul.
Part II. follows Renner’s motivations to actualize his plans. Now a successful scientist working for a prominent company (and having inherited an exuberant sum from his foster father, who has passed away), he conducts his studies at home in private, knowing full well that the discovery of his indiscretion will yield in criminal charges and institutional excommunication. Despite the risks, at every stage of his experience upon arriving on American soil–through his scientific determination, spiritual enhancement (at its own cost), and total monetary insulation, Renner’s greed never fails to simmer until his eyes literally turn black.
Milena–formerly vibrant in spirituality, full of exotic beauty, and physically ravishing, experiences a total deflation of self, experiences a total deflation of self as Renner’s star shines brighter and his eyes burn darker. Toward the beginning of her marriage to Renner she has a premonition that she refuses to accept as plausible. As a result of averting the image from her consciousness, she abandons utilizing her psychic abilities altogether. Renner accumulates all–while she dwindles until she represents little more than raw research for her husband’s eventual experiments.
Part I. builds up the tension gradually, almost allowing the reader to feel a sense of comfort in the setting and interpersonal situations to this point. Part II. shatters this false sense of security and pushes boundaries that can’t be repaired. Domino pieces fall into place with a surgeon’s precision–almost too conveniently at times (although I’m not sure that’s exactly the right word, as much calculation has gone into aligning the fragments), but every issue is addressed.
The first thing that stands out in FATHER OF CONTENTION, clocking in at a fairly dense yet breezy 375 pages, is its focus. To accomplish this, Mores keeps a tight leash on every ingredient, ensuring that each character and event plays into the grand scheme–no red herrings, no throw away characters. It’s only a matter of time before the story answers questions plotted throughout; just when you wonder what happened with X at the beginning of the story, it explodes before you, and you can’t help but relish in such well-placed catharses.
The novel carries a neutral tone, maintaining an almost clinical view of events to match the climate in which the story takes place: the lab. And even when the story takes its dark turns, investigating the speculative nature of the occult or the horrors of domestic abuse, the spikes in tension take on an illuminated nature within the narrative’s level casing. I don’t want to spoil anything regarding these elements, but let’s say I didn’t expect to see certain things transpire with such a cold gaze.
A note on the science–while the story doesn’t dawdle into rambling theory, it does delve deep enough in the theories contained to truly captivate. I had to remind myself that my more experimental days are behind me (supposedly) when a desire to dabble in DMT bubbled up in the back of my mind. Lanie reveals in the afterward that these concepts are partially based in real studies and inflated with imagination.
Perhaps one of my favorite elements of FATHER OF CONTENTION is its insular nature–every expository detail pertains to the characters’ past experiences or the world around them. Meaning, minimal authorial intervention (when a writer injects their own perspective into the narrative, staining what could potentially stand as a successful story). Some people thrive on utilizing and ingesting authorial intervention, but in Lanie’s writing it’s simply a nonentity, and I look forward to reading the three next three books in the series.
I have to strain to summon a short list of criticisms for FATHER OF CONTENTION.
At times I felt that certain words were repeated too often in proximity, such as referring to Renner and Milena as “the young married couple” several times on a single page.
I mentioned earlier that some resolutions occurred somewhat conveniently. In other terms however, it can be said that Mores ties loose ends when the narrative allows the space to attend each issue simmering beneath the story.
The cover stands as a somewhat sore point for me, though it doesn’t affect the rating–the front shows a depiction of Renner while Milena’s image occupies the back. This is a sensible enough concept, but Lanie points such a clear image of the characters at the beginning of the story that the models on display don’t do their source material justice.
Final Rating: 4.5