Judging a book by its cover: Thomas Wylde’s Journey to Rilla
As the saying goes, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
I tend to do it anyway. I mean, look at this.
LOOK AT IT. The cover itself is hilarious on its own, with Disco-Afro Sauron flipping out over some Space-Pirates…shining flashlights on rocks. But what really does it for me is the silver border; it reminds me of old Konami games for the NES.
And so, based on the cover, and the fact that it was only 99 cents, I snagged Journey to Rilla. It’s a quick read, too, not even 200 pages. I went in expecting pulpy fun, and…well…I guess it was okay?
If you look in the lower right corner, you’ll see Journey to Rilla is actually the sixth book in the Dr. Bones series. A little bit of poking around on Google tells me that this was the last book in the series- and also that many of them were written by other authors. My guess is that somebody at Ace books decided to crank out a pulpy sci-fi franchise, and that’s what they did.
It goes without saying I haven’t read the prior five books, so I went in kind of blind. From reading the back blurb, I went in semi-primed: there’s a dude named Dr. Bones, and his schtick is that he’s a space archeologist. Xenoarcheologist. Whatever. It’s the kind of career that works well in a novel, as it gives your protagonist an excuse to hot rod around and punch dudes in the face.
However, what the blurb on the back didn’t mention are Dr. Bones’ sidekicks, who seem to do more of the adventuring than he does. There’s Jackson (the dude on the cover with the eyepatch), a cybernetic black guy, and Marty, a…silver skinned dwarf who is the ironically adopted son of the bad guy? What? All these traits are more or less taken for granted, and I’m sure it’s explained logically over the course of the prior 5 novels, but seriously, it feels kind of like they just threw a bunch of adjectives in a bag and pulled them out at random to create the character. I’m not sure if the robot on the cover is supposed to be Marty, or Professor Digger (a robot who is the best character in the book). Not pictured is Dr. Bones’ site-foreman, a centipede-crab-alien lady named K-something. Seriously, her name had exclamation points in it, and I’m not going to type that out every time.
There’s also some business about an alien death-cult, which is promising on the pulp adventure front…but it doesn’t really go anywhere past the first chapter. Dr. Bones heads to the planet Rilla in order to investigate the origins of this death-cult, and things get worse from there.
What struck me about the novel (early on, at least) is that Dr. Bones does…actual archeology. At least he starts the book that way. There’s a dig, and they record everything, and it’s all very methodical. Heck, there’s even a point where they find a glowy alien plot-device crystal, and their reaction is to take it to the lab and do science at it. (That’s what I’m assuming they’re doing on the cover, shining their science-flashlights on those rocks). On the one hand, it’s a change from Lara Croft style tomb raiding…but on the other, when you mention Indiana Jones on the cover, the reader’s going to expect some raided tombs. It’s also worth noting that Professor Digger does the most actual archeology in the book, when he’s left on an asteroid to catalog a bunch of those plot-device crystals before said asteroid falls into the sun.
While working on his dig on Rilla, Dr. Bones digs up an ancient stone calendar, and hypothesizes that it’s predicting the end of the world. He announces this at a press conference (what kind of archeologists hold press conferences?) and everybody on Rilla flips the hell out. This is where the book lost me. On the one hand, I can understand if some people would go crazy if somebody said “Oh by the way, I found this thing that said the world is ending.” However, I imagine many more people would be skeptical, at the very least. Especially since Rilla has a small human population, who you would think wouldn’t be that impressed with the prophecies of some backwater aliens. Not to mention the fact this is a science fiction novel, so people have access to telescopes and FTL spaceships and stuff. You’d think someone would say “Oh hey, giant space rocks. Maybe we should do something with our sufficiently advanced technology so everyone doesn’t die. Just saying.”
This is…kind of what the bad guy of the novel wants to do. He apparently brokers a deal with the alien theocrats of Rilla to save the planet, to the point where he installed a bunch of big laser cannons for the purpose of blasting space rocks…and then these cannons aren’t mentioned past the first third of the novel. He then makes a deal to evacuate the planet, with the caveat that he then gets the planet (and all the plot-device crystals on it) afterward. This strikes me as a rather difficult plan to enforce, once everything’s said and done. But the bad guy doesn’t have to worry about that, as he’s foiled by Dr. Bones and Co. Wooo.
There’s also some business about the ancient alien gods and prophecies being the result of a bunch of other Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, which is what one would expect from a book like this. Basically, there’s three alien races on the planet, of which two are just asshole jerks, who oppress the third, who are barely sentient. There’s hints of colonialism here, if you want to read it that way. Then again, colonialism and pulp-archaeology are parallel themes anyway, whether they like it or not.
Journey to Rilla is kind of an odd duck- I get the feeling there were supposed to be more books after this one, as the climax isn’t high stakes enough for the last book in a series. At the same time, there are a lot of odd elements (the murder-cult, Marty the silver skinned dwarf, etc) that are just thrown in and not really explained, which prevents Journey to Rilla from working completely as a stand-alone novel. The book didn’t inspire me to go out hunting for the earlier books in the series…but at the same time, if I saw another one going for just a buck somewhere or another, I might just pick it up for curiosity’s sake.