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Review: The Spider in the Laurel

The Spider in the Laurel audiobook cover. A young man with a gun is ready for action. In the background we can see the eyes and mandibles of a large spider. The Spider in the Laurel by Michael Pogach.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 10 hrs 6 mins.

The Spider in the Laurel, Rafael Ward series, Book 1 by Michael Pogach blends elements of urban fantasy with Orwellian dystopia to bring us a fast-paced debut.

Audible Summary: In Tomorrow's America, Belief is the New Enemy. Even a Silent Prayer can get you Black-Bagged. Historian Rafael Ward is a good citizen, teaching students the government approved narrative of the nation's history. Until the black-baggers come calling. They have a job for him, one he's not allowed to refuse: Ward must go undercover as a Believer and smuggler to hunt down and destroy the artifacts he cherishes. Before he knows it, he's following fugitive Hannah MacKenzie on a fool's quest to recover the legendary Vase of Soissons, a Dark Age relic prophesized to restore faith to the world.

I really liked this audiobook's premise; anything that features a historian and relic hunter has me humming the Indiana Jones theme tune before the book has even finished downloading. Pogach's vision of the not-too-distant future soon snapped me out of my reverie, however, as in 'Tomorrow's America' things are a little more Big Brother than Temple of Doom (despite both having ties to 1984).

The protagonist, Rafael Ward, has his life turned upside-down when the authorities - the mysterious REC - command him to track down a historical artifact at a time when history, if in any way influenced by spirituality or religion, is prohibited. The mission is dangerous and our hero is reluctant... at least until he meets the alluring MacKenzie.

I struggled to connect with the book at first, despite my initial interest in the subject, but after a few chapters it began to click. I'm not sure why it took me that long to really settle in with this audiobook, but once past that early slump it picked up pace and was much more engaging.

Many of the themes in this audiobook make me think of the Reformation. The destruction of history we experienced then is evident throughout England today in many a ruined church and defaced statue. With so many tangible examples of just how easily the state has previously wiped out all traces of a religion with which it clashed, it was not too big a leap to imagine a more contemporary, political landscape in which the same objective might be achieved. Whilst the loss of treasured artifacts tugs at my heart, I was intrigued by a world which was not ruled by religion, especially given its influence in America. (Ours, I feel, is a much more secular society, by comparison.)

With that in mind, I found that I was just as uncomfortable with the religious 'underground rebels' being portrayed as the oppressed good guys as I was with the totalitarian regulation they opposed. I think this was partly because we live in a world full of people who genuinely believe their way of life is under attack, and frequently respond by attacking others' beliefs. Instead of campaigning for greater tolerance they seem to fight hardest for the right to be intolerant. These musings were not unwelcome, I liked that it made me think, and that I did so from a similar perspective to Ward; someone with a deep appreciation for human history, art, architecture, and literature, but without the same connection to the religious beliefs that often underpinned it. I was most able to relate to his character, and appreciated the awe with which he looked upon the intricately-crafted churches and cathedrals beyond his own government's newly-sanitised borders.

I rolled my eyes a little at an early description of a bartender, when Ward observed that her dress "would have looked trashy on anyone else, but on her it looked elegant". Many of us have heard similar lines from men chatting us up, and it really isn't the compliment some of them think it is. This is a relatively minor gripe, though, as overall the book is well written and does not languish too often in the clich├ęd, stereotypical, or misogynistic scenes which have come to typify the genre.

The narrator, Terry F. Self, brings the characters alive with an enjoyable, energetic performance, and is pleasant to listen to. As MacKenzie has Scottish origins it was a shame that he mispronounced Edinburgh, the city of her birth (which he said as Eh-din-burg not Eh-din-bruh), but as far as non-Brits are concerned that word is something of a linguistic banana peel waiting to trip them up, so I'm willing to overlook it.

The audiobook's production was very good, except for background sounds in places during Audible chapters 27/28/29/30. For example, a vibrating mobile phone alert went off several times, and actually became quite annoying. It's a rather insignificant thing, but occurred at a tense point in the story when Ward and MacKenzie were supposed to be off-grid, which made it stand out more, jarring me out of the story rather than blending into the background.

I would still gladly recommend this audiobook to people who like near-future dystopia, shady government organisations, action, and a little fantasy.

*I received this audiobook free of charge in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.

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