There are books you’re instinctively drawn to. For me, Jerry Gordon’s Breaking the World wasn’t one of them, but it very quickly became a very nice surprise.
I’m interested in the mechanics and atmosphere of modern religious movements (cults? Maybe, but I have the same interest in major religions as well.), insofar as how they relate to the outside world. (And how said outside world relates to them.) But I’m not actively seeking these topics out. Something still piqued my interest, beyond the satisfaction of getting my hands on the book early and being able to interview the author. And now here we are.
(Full disclosure: I did get a free review copy from Apex. They did not pay for me to review the book, or to interview Jerry. But I'll preorder the book it anyway.)
From the Apex Book Company preorder page:
In his debut novel, Jerry Gordon takes readers deep inside the longest standoff in law enforcement history for an apocalyptic thriller that challenges the news media's reporting of the event, the wisdom of militarizing domestic law enforcement, and the blurry line between religion and cult.
Listen to my interview with Jerry, and read the spoiler-free review below.
Before we begin: housekeeping.
(A quick word on 'Storytellers Anonymous')
I'm fascinated by the medium of podcasts, and wanted to do one for a long time.
Storytellers Anonymous is an experiment, where I interview writers about their books. (And review said books. Or just write/talk about writing itself.) Eventually I'd like to expand this into storytelling of all kinds: from filmmaking to telling stories on social media. But, as we agree with Jerry in the inaugural episode, doing what you know is the best way to get started. And my home turf is writing.
I don't have a set schedule for it yet; I'd like it to be a weekly show, but have no stress about it either. And special extra kudos to Jerry for agreeing to do a podcast interview that not only doesn't have any listeners, but in fact didn't have a single episode yet.
Please let me know what you liked/didn't like; plenty of ways to get in touch with me. I'm aware of many issues (mostly the technical ones), and I promise it'll get better. ☺️ But any and all feedback is most welcome.
Also, if you are a writer, and would like to talk about writing, have a book the promote, etc. - let me know!
Now, to the main event.
Let’s get into the thick of it
And I mean that literally. I loved the in medias res opening, and the fact that there isn’t a second to pause.
The first half of the book revolves around exploring the standoff from the inside. It starts with a bang. Literally, as it opens with the ATF coming in hard (and guns blazing).
I didn’t know much about the Waco incident before reading the book, but Jerry did a lot of research. That unseen power of accuracy does come through the pages, even for me. "History is written by the winners," goes the saying. And whenever you get a glimpse of what wasn't recorded by, in the case, the mainstream media, when you get to see through the eyes of someone other than those writing the historical narrative - it's always fascinating.
There's always value in learning more than what's apparent (or what others want to make apparent). You may or may not agree with David Koresh's beliefs, but there's value in hearing it, or thinking about what could've happened on the other side of the compound's walls.
Jerry makes this insight highly entertaining, through the lens of genre fiction, and through the authentic voice of his characters.
My only problem was with the at times inconsistent voice of the narrator-protagonist. There are attempts, which I found great, when Cyrus is trying to explain (both to himself and to the audience) away the gaps in his knowledge — after all, he’s a teenager. This is why it jumps out at you when he suddenly doesn’t, but still uses a word or phrase, or just knows something, he shouldn’t know.
Welcome to my world (before it's destroyed)
I also liked the fact it was written from a first person point of view. It creates a more intimate filter through which we explore the situation. By making Cyrus and his friends “a trinity of non-believers” Jerry makes a smart move in preserving his narrator’s perspective — so it doesn’t become the perspective of those within the compound — and at the same time going in as close as it’s possible.
I liked the way the differing perspectives are presented, too. However, this is one of the ways Cyrus gives away his authenticity a bit — I’d think making him more naive, and presenting the outside perspective through the FBI or the ATF, would’ve made this more believable. Cyrus may be a smart kid, but he’s just a kid and not an adult who would handle the situation like he does.
Then again, that would’ve forced the book to be more distant from its topic, and the tradeoff of the occasional off-sounding teenager works better than doing an encompassing narrative that includes the Feds.
David Koresh is an interesting figure, and Jerry went to lengths to preserve his character as close to the real one as possible. It was captivating to see him at the beginning of the novel versus at the end of it; and particularly being forced to accept his… “peculiarities” as matter-of-factly as we do.
It all builds up. And that’s what Jerry Gordon does really well: keeping his neck-breaking pace of the opening action sequence throughout the standoff’s more introspective moments without a sense of slowing down or slugging to reach the next plot point.
When the reader gets to the point where he feels comfortable with the story, Jerry twists it around and we’re left with catching up to him again. (At which point he’s making another twist.)
I loved this aspect of the book. It’s part of his sense of pacing that Jerry knows when a twist will revigorate the reader’s attention.
(And I’m not easy to impress. As a writer myself and, more importantly, as a reader of fiction I can smell a twist a mile away. Yet throughout Breaking the World I was left dumbfounded for a second time and time again — of course in retrospect it all makes sense, but when it’s revealed: it’s magic.)
The twists are also the beats where Jerry can progress deeper into his genre: from a thriller it goes on to… well, I’m not going to spoil it for you. Trust me: you won't regret reading it.
The show must go on. Constantly.
This multi-faceted progression, from one atmosphere to another, from one perspective to another, from one story beat to another, is what makes this book such a captivating read.
And then it just ends.
It’s not easy to do a cliffhanger, not any more at least. Jerry still pulls it off, and I was left with the urge to suspect something was wrong with my copy. “There must be more,” I thought. And I was right: there is…
… in the next book. And that’s good storytelling. I didn’t care for the Waco incident before; heck, I didn’t even know about it! And now I positively can not wait to get back to Cyrus’ world.
I recommend buying the book. And I'm fair sure that's the only one I need to recommend, because you'll want to read the ones after this, too. 😉
I’d like to thank Jerry, who so generously agreed to doing the interview with me.
Beyond the behind-the-scenes of the book, we talked about the practice and business of writing as well. I think — or at least hope — that many writers/aspiring authors will find his advice on the business and practice of writing useful.
Follow, and say hello to Jerry on the introwebz:
Also huge thanks to Apex Book Company for the advance review copy of the book, and for publishing such awesome fiction.
In 1993, David Koresh predicted the end of the world. What if he was right? You can preorder directly from Apex. Use the checkout discount code GORDON20 to receive 20% off your order (trade, hardcover, and digital preorders). If you preorder the print edition, you will receive the digital advance reader's copy edition of Breaking the World for free!
Cover image: Breaking the World cover by Noah Aust.
Podcast intro/outro and background music: Epidemic Sound.