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Dominance by Will Lavender
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Jul 03, 11

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Read in June, 2011

When I first read the summary of Dominance by Will Lavender, I immediately wanted it. A literary mystery, phantom authors, novels as riddles – what could be more exciting?

Unfortunately, Dominance fell short of its unique premise. I’m not sure if my expectations were too high but I think Dominance had all the elements to make it a great thriller yet for a multitude of reasons detailed below, it didn’t quite get there.

The progression of the narrative was well done – Lavender kept the suspense meter amped up as the book alternated between 1994 and the present. Little by little we learn how Alex proved Richard Aldiss’s innocence in 1994, as we simultaneously learn how she uncovers the murderer’s identity in the present. This technique hooked me into the dual storylines and kept me turning the pages.

I also liked the way Lavender effectively depicted the competitiveness between the star students in 1994, as this was a crucial aspect of the plot.

The relationship between Alex Shipley, a Harvard professor and former student, and Richard Aldiss, the enigmatic professor whose innocence she proved in 1994, is derivative of that between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. I liked how Richard Aldiss’s character is deliberately ambiguous – did he or didn’t he do it? Is he or isn’t he evil? However, his explanation of why he kept secret for 12 years a key piece of information which could have proven his innocence is just ridiculous. Being tight-lipped and coy when you’re facing life in prison isn’t the mark of an enigma, it’s unrealistic.

And that’s really what my dissatisfaction boils down to - the lack of logic. I expect red herrings in mysteries, but the ones used here did not make sense to me. People talk in riddles, which they don’t do in real life.

The entire plot revolves around the literary game called the “Procedure” which sounds as mysterious and inviting as a .... biopsy or anything requiring surgical tools. For me to have bought into the book, I needed to buy into the “Procedure’s” dangerous mystique; unfortunately, it just sounded like Dungeons and Dragons for lit majors.

"'We were walking down the street...and someone started saying lines. I recognized the passage--it was from deep inside the novel...I fell into my own role, saying the lines and using the gestures exactly from the text. It has to be exact; the player has to show a mastery of Fallows, down to the very last detail. And that second time I knew from others' faces--I had won.'

"'And what happens if you win?' Mitchell asked quietly.

"Aldiss turned his gaze up. Something had changed in his face, eclipsed the hard-set tension from before. His eyes flashed. 'You are accepted,' he said. 'The Procedure ends and you become one of the elite.'

"'And if you lose?' asked Alex. 'What then?'


"'Then you are shunned. And as a Fallows scholar, to not be inside, to not be one of them--that is a fate worse than death.'"

A character called it “high nerd” and I would have to agree (and this is coming from a pretty nerdy lit major). Nothing in the book indicated to me that the “Procedure” was a life or death game (or even fun) so the above passage made me laugh – sorry, I really didn’t mean to. Connected with the “Procedure” are the novels of Paul Fallows, the phantom author who may or may not be invented. Again, upon reading vague descriptions of his books, I didn’t see any clues as to why they would inspire a cult following.

Dominance felt schizophrenic – one moment an elaborate literary mystery, the next a potboiler riddled with clichéd phrases. I don’t mind reading one or the other, but mashed up together, the result confused and disappointed me.
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