It’s been a sad century for dragons. Though they’ve proliferated throughout genre fiction and attained a semblance of life thanks to the wonders of CGI, so often it seems that something vital has been lost in the shuffle. From Toothless to Saphira, the modern iteration of that terrifying serpent whose image was for millennia emblazoned upon the collective imagination of humanity has succumbed to Disneyfication. Modern dragons hold polite conversation, accept riders, and bless mankind with ancient magics. Gone is that stark naked horror which wafted before a “moonlit shape coming down from the mist-laden fens as the atol angengea, the terrifying solitary one.” Gone, too, is that awestruck reverence once reserved for the mighty who dared face monsters. We now possess no yardstick by which to measure their valor. Gone is the nightmare, replaced by a daydream.
Were you underwhelmed by Smaug’s cinematic desolation? Did you crave something more … effectual? And what of those who would defy such a threat? Is it your dream to see the Norse god of thunder redeemed from paganism to more perfectly embody the likeness of his archetypical Heroic Model? Do you like military-industrial conspiracies, clandestine sci-fi experimentation, cat-and-mouse pursuits through sprawling subterranean fortresses? And do you secretly wish someone a little more story-savvy shared Michael Bay’s fondness for unnecessarily large explosions?
Then do I have a book for you.
It’s a mixture of Predator, Reign of Fire, and That Hideous Strength, with a dash of Tron thrown in for good measure. It’s a titanic, thunderous, knock-down-drag-out confrontation between good and evil, love and hate, unshakable courage and unstoppable rage. It’s a raw, savage, passionate vision of apocalyptic conflict nearly choked by its own superfluous verbosity, which somehow manages to transcend failures of diction through sheer zeal, reaching imperfectly for a sense of poetry to which few dare aspire in this self-conscious era. Like the Book of Job which first profiled the titular beast, Leviathan is an ode to power. And it’s gloriously, shamelessly Christian.
James Byron Huggins’ novel unfolds on the fictitious, ice-shrouded island of Grimwald, situated north of the Arctic Circle between Iceland and Norway. Perforated with lava tubes, this isolated bastion has become the cradle for a creature concocted via a potent cocktail of pseudoscience and latent genetic memory: a flame-throwing, impenetrably-armored, double-decker-bus-sized reptile capable of charging at 145 miles per hour and sustaining an internal resting temperature of 326 degrees Fahrenheit, whose synapses fire five times faster than those of a human, and whose brain has been neurally programmed with a vast tactical tutelage.
Got all that? There’ll be a test. It’s kinda pass/fail.
This cooped-up force of nature was intended by its inventors as a test case for technology with the potential to cure cancer, and by its funders as an unstoppable, untraceable weapon of global political domination. But altruistic aspirations and conceited schemes must alike defer to the “king over all the sons of pride,” for Leviathan, independent of human design, has developed a mind of its own.
It escapes containment of course, and, incited by a malevolence baffling to its erstwhile masters, begins laying waste to everything and everyone. Trapped with the terror in a tangle of tunnels by an automatic lockdown, a desperate band comprised of scientists, soldiers, a resourceful electrician, and his computer-programmer wife must defy certain death. Oh, and there’s Thor, too. But we’ll get to him in a bit. What follows are 200 pages of unrelenting action driven by taut choreography and ridiculously high stakes. If once the monster gives the island the slip, nothing but a nuclear blast will be able to put it down. It’s do-or-die time for Team Grimwald, and, due to acts of ill-conceived posterior-covering by incompetent authority-figures, no help is on its way.
Stylistically, the novel is a decidedly mixed bag. Huggins betrays his enthusiasm at every possible opportunity, piling on the abstract modifiers until even simple sentences feel laughably distended. The words “immediately” and “instantly” cease to convey meaning. “Murderous” and “mushrooming” become throwaway adjectives. To be fair, part of this is due to the fact that tension escalates swiftly and then plateaus in thin atmosphere for the remainder of the narrative. And I can’t get too perturbed, because, miraculously, the story doesn’t suffer from its unvaried and bloated vocabulary. The pacing is too breathless, the syntax too seamless, the plotting too precise, the characterization too lifelike, and the dialog (aside from some clunky data-dumps up front) too natural to let me stall out in annoyance. At its height, the language lapses into a kind of cinematic surrealism, streaming the characters’ consciousnesses in fragmented fever-dreams reminiscent of Frank Peretti Climax Mode.
But it’s Huggins’ deft dance with theme which truly thrills me. Page one plunges the reader into moodiness so thick it could be cut with a bladed weapon, introducing us to a hulking figure who stands alone upon the frigid strand, staring intently into the distance, epitomizing mythic manhood, embodying “the image of a Teutonic frost giant of old, or a Viking sea king loosed from the corridors of time.” He’s eight feet tall, hunts mountain goats for a living, and resides in an ancient, abandoned tower. He knows dozens of languages and talks history and philosophy with ease. He keeps a double-bladed battle-axe suspended over his mantlepiece. His name, superfluously, is Thor.
My friends, it is this man — this man — who is the novel’s Christian.
That fact alone should tell us something about the story’s thematic substance. Specifically, that it ain’t no morality play. Yes there’s a lot of talk, mainly from Thor himself, about good and evil and the ubiquity of their dissonance. But Leviathan, ultimately, is a battle of wills, a trial of strength, not some appeal to abstract principles or the nebulous “power of love.” For the purposes of the novel, love is epitomized not primarily by Thor the man of God but by Jackson Conner the resourceful electrician, a deeply empathetic agnostic who yearns for a better life and fights like a rabid animal to safeguard his family. Connor’s noble-yet-narrow paganism is thrown into sharp relief by the brightness of Thor’s myth-tinged Christianity, by the man’s fierce devotion to that heroic ideal captured in the tableau etched upon his axe-blade: a winged warrior grappling a galactic dragon amid the heavens. By his willingness to run toward danger instead of fleeing from it, by his readiness to exhaust his immense strength in a seemingly futile cause, Thor attests to an eternal hope that’s honed his soul for battle.
Connor fights evil because his survival depends on it. Thor voluntarily seeks out evil to destroy. It’s a reversal of the prudently-fearful-Christian-versus-recklessly-bold-Viking historical-fiction stereotype. The distinction between these two isn’t a matter of morals; they’re both admirable men. Instead, their disparity is one of power. And this makes me very happy.
In the Book of Job, God gives no justification for His actions. When Job accuses Him of injustice and demands an airing of grievances, God responds not with patient explanation but with a whirlwind of rhetorical questions. Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down his tongue with a cord? Who can open the doors of his face? Around his teeth is terror. His back is made of rows of shields, shut up closely as with a seal. Out of his mouth go flaming torches; sparks of fire leap forth. Though the sword reaches him, it does not avail, nor the spear, the dart, or the javelin. He counts iron as straw, and bronze as rotten wood. On earth there is not his like, a creature without fear. No one is so fierce that he dares stir him up.
“Who then is he who can stand before Me?”
In other words, might makes right. And none is mightier than God. To nothing higher than Himself does God appeal. His kingdom consists not in talk but in power. Thus, if man finds it impossible to defeat Leviathan, a mere creature, it follows that man possesses no means to contravene the will of God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and all that therein lurks. “Is it logical for a created being to be greater than its creator?” screams one of Huggins’ heroes during a climactic scene. “What is the final purpose of life? Answer the question!” Thor knows the answer, believes it even in the face of death. And we, with Connor the noble pagan, look on in transfixed awe.
Only the fear of God can swallow that evoked by the dragon in the darkness. For the Almighty alone makes Leviathan His pet.