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Empire of Light

David Czuchlewski

Putnam / Penguin

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-399-15103-6

Publication Date: 09-11-2003

226 Pages; $23.95

Date Reviewed: 11-17-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



General, Mystery, Horror

Behavior follows belief, an unruly pet tethered to an unreliable owner. Fortunately, we rarely think about either one or the other. But when the tether strains or snaps, both whip into focus as they veer apart, eventually to find themselves entangled once again, inseparably knotted. When what we believe becomes unstable in such a fashion that we cannot maintain belief long enough to inform our behavior, the norms slip away. We get weird. We get paranoid. They are after us in some fashion or another. Once the walls come tumbling down only belief can build them back up again. But can it fly in the face of our experience? Can our desire for reasonable behavior lead us to unreasonable beliefs? David Czuchlewski's ontological literary thriller 'Empire of Light' flies straight into the sun, burns out the reader's eyes, then burns in beliefs that support reasonable behavior. Subtle, simple, it slips in under the radar to reconstruct the reader's world as well as that of the characters.

Matt Kelly tried to forget Anna Barrett, the girl that got away. She was actually taken away twice, once by rich parents who found Kelly's proletariat past wanting, and once by Imperium Luminis, a Catholic sect dedicated to good works in this world. Still stinging from both rejections, he's not happy to see her show up on his stoop one rainy night. She's stopped drinking, she's escaped the cult -- he's none too eager to believe any of it. And just what is this Imperium Luminis? Is it just a charity organization on steroids, a group of priests and lay people who are really dedicated to helping the world? Or is it a mind-controlling cult? Back in the college class on cults, Matt chose to study the Gnostics while Anna chose Imperium Luminis. His choice led him away from belief, hers towards it. Both have pursued lives they feel are eminently reasonable. But now that Anna, once in, then out, is in again, her fabulously wealthy father wants her out. Matt is sent in to extract her. But his willingness to do so will hinge on his ability to believe that Imperium Luminis is a cult.

For a low-key intellectually inclined novel, 'Empire of Light' is a remarkably fast read. Prepare to find yourself still seated, still fascinated with gridwork of paranoia and belief that Czuchlewski spins in seductive sentences long after you intended to extricate yourself from his web. Imperium Luminis trades on that bulwark of so much horror fiction, the Catholic Church in all its Byzantine glory. Unlike much of the literature, however, 'Empire of Light' is not heavy handed. In fact, it's worryingly reasonable, drawing the reader into the Empire of Light as easily as it draws the characters. This is part of the charm, the compact sense of directionless direction that allows Czuchlewski to spin you round so many times you'll wonder if and when the dance will end. Grounded in reasonable facts, supported by a passionate piece of literature from the founder of Imperium Luminis, Giuseppe Conti's 'The Pilgrim', Czuchlewski's novel will erode your certainty with easy charm and page-turning prose.

Czuchlewski keeps everything in moderation. 'Empire of Light' has just a few characters that are clearly drawn and come to life with ease. By shading discoveries, staggering revelations and counter-pointing invention and reality, Czuchlewski gives his characters the kind of depth you expect in a much longer novel. Matt's beliefs are whipsawed about just as are the readers. Matt's dying father, with his history as a Vietnam vet, plays a pivotal role, injecting bits of grit into the spiritual swings. Anna is alternately oblique and obvious, innocent and worldly -- at least as seen by Matt. Imperium Luminis is represented by Father Harrington, whose easygoing charm is not lost on the characters or the reader.

'Empire of Light' only rarely plays the paranoia card. It doesn't overdo it, and thus succeeds in slowly creating a sense of creeping dread in the reader. There's no supernatural or violent threat here. The reader and the characters are tortured by their own thoughts, their own doubts in their own beliefs, and how those beliefs should or will drive their choices of action. Czuchlewski is a master of insinuating terror, of placing slivers of suspicion in our perceptions. What do you believe and why do you believe it? These questions and their answers have life-threatening consequences. Usually they're easily ignored in our day-to-day drudgery. But pinpricks of doubt, clouds of uncertainty hover at the edges of our reasonable lives. Let them grow, let them hover. Everything can come unraveled in an instant. Keep believing it isn't true.