In the ten short years since the PeaceMaker virus brought commerce and communications – and very nearly civilization – to a halt, both America’s economy and infrastructure have collapsed. The divide between haves and have-nots is more pronounced than ever, and that divide manifests itself in religious war. On one side are those who would advance technology; on the other are a conglomeration of ragtag groups who consider technology a manifestation of all that is evil. One leader is all it takes – one leader who can light the fuse on a powder keg of resentment and frustration, one leader who can call forth an army of God to slay technology-wielding infidels. That army’s weapons will be the weapons of every underclass fighting a more powerful enemy: guerilla warfare, stealth, and terror.
Into this uneasy mixture comes David Brown, twenty-something son of the reviled Raymond Brown, who the world believes released PeaceMaker a decade ago. A long-hiden message from his dead father suggests that the elder Brown was framed, blamed for a disaster that he was actually trying to prevent. David’s search for the truth about his father places him squarely in the crossfire between the “Technos” and the religious fanatics who have sworn their destruction. As he follows the faint trail his father left long ago, David’s path leads him not only into the sights of the Church of the Natural Human, but also makes him a target of The Domain – the secret technological cabal that is exactly what the cultists think it is. Good thing David’s a galaxy-class hacker (not to mention quite the lady-killer); he’s going to need all the skills he can muster.
While Dan Ronco’s Unholy Domain shows initial promise – the poor and disadvantaged of a depressed U.S. economy coalesce into armies of religious fanatics (turning to religion and guns, just like Barack Obama thought, eh?) – it’s a promise that the novel fails to keep. Ronco’s plot starts out well but soon descends into shopworn motifs, such as religious leaders preying on their young (very young) and beautiful followers, to maintain tension. Where action fails him, the author turns to hackneyed sex – his female characters are unfailingly gorgeous and fabulously-endowed, and most seem unable to resist the charms of the much younger Brown. The mere act of assigning a buxom female character the nickname “DoubleD” is all the evidence one needs. When not concentrating on the excesses of religion, the plot often starts to resemble the fantasies played out in “Penthouse Forum.”
Several plot twists appear from distant left field, in particular one concerning an artificial-intelligence-to-human interface that is both difficult to swallow and difficult to marry to the remainder of the novel, resembling a sort of sloppy literary kludge. To top it all off, Ronco’s writing style tends to the choppy and sparse as well: most of the text is short, simple sentences that impart a sing-song rhythm.
All of which, unfortunately, detracts from what could have been an interesting tale. Fleshed out with… well, less flesh, and more plot, and with more attention to the craft of writing (blame his editor – I do), Unholy Domain could have been a pretty good novel. But it wasn’t, and so it’s not.