Friday, April 06, 2007

Review of KINGDOM COME (the final Left Behind novel)

I can't begin to describe how much I loathe this book.

Let me state something before I go too far: I believe, quite earnestly, that the Left Behind series began with nothing but the best and noblest of intentions. I will always believe that.

But I also stand by something that I wrote a few weeks ago: "Left Behind has become a bloated whore."

Let's face it: when the final chapter of a sixteen-novel series is a less enthralling read than Hannibal Rising, something has gone very, very wrong.

(Yes, I'm one of the five people who'll admit to reading Hannibal Rising. My choice of literature lately could be described as "off-kilter" and that would be a compliment.)

I bought Kingdom Come - the final book of the runaway best-selling Left Behind series - Tuesday night (the day it was published) at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Reidsville. There was a time when I counted down the hours to the release of a new Left Behind book. Those days are now a happy but fleeting memory. So embarrassed was I to be seen with the book the other night that after I picked up a copy, I grabbed the latest issue of Astronomy magazine to hide the front cover and the fact that I had it in my hands. Yes, once upon a time I would buy a Left Behind book with pride. By Tuesday night, the final time purchasing one of these books, it felt more like buying cheap porno from the friendly neighborhood Piggly Wiggly and trying to hide your face at the cash register.

Which is something that's very regrettable. I don't necessarily agree with some things they hold to, but I believe Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins are two good people. Few will argue that Jenkins is not a standout writer and just as few will not acknowledge that LaHaye knows his Christian theology. I got to meet both of them several years ago and however brief it was, I thought they were two nice fellas who were absolutely sincere about what it was they were trying to do with this series. That was when Book 8 in the series, The Mark, had come out. And what a rollickin' good read it was! But that was eight books ago...

Years later, and LaHaye and Jenkins are tired of this. It's painfully obvious. The same way that Patrick Stewart was visibly tired of playing Picard by the time Star Trek: Nemesis came out. Part of me wonders if LaHaye and Jenkins ever intended for Left Behind to get stretched this far and spread so thin. Did the suits at Tyndale House keep begging them to keep doing this against all sound judgment? Good lord, there have been sixteen full-length novels to tell this story, where Harry Potter only needs seven. Eight books would have been more than enough: one for each year of the Tribulation and a final one covering the millennium following.

I just had a scary thought: Left Behind now dwarfs L. Ron Hubbard's "Mission Earth" ten-volume series. Consider that for a moment: however nutty he was, L. Ron Hubbard... the founder of Scientology mind you... at least knew when to stop.

I can't help but think that Left Behind is the Christian counter-culture version of the infamous "Clone Saga" from the Spider-Man comics: a story that started out simple but as it started to earn more money, it spun out of the control of the writers. Left Behind was supposed to be a ministry thing. But when it became popular it became an entirely different animal altogether. Left Behind ended up a whole franchise, complete with comic books and video games and a movie adaptation that was to Kirk Cameron what Gigli was to Ben Affleck.

And now, here at the end, after the milking is finally done, Left Behind is a more depleted cow than Star Trek ever was (I'm going to stop right there before I go too far and start talking about Rick Berman and Brannon Braga... but that's what keeps coming to mind when I think of what ultimately happened with LaHaye and Jenkins and their Left Behind books).

Who's to blame for this mess? It started out so well, with such great promise. By the time book 12 came out, Left Behind was a series crying for vengeance. Somebody should have long ago been held accountable for what became of it.

But here we have Kingdom Come: the last novel of the entire thing. Is it possible that in spite of how fouled-up this thing has become, that Left Behind could yet be redeemed at the very end?

Sadly, no.

Kingdom Come starts off with a quick recap of the end from Glorious Appearing. After a brief look at the days and weeks immediately following the Second Coming, the story jumps to a point ninety-three years later... and stays there for all but a little more than the final chapter. You'd think that with an entire millennium to play with that we would see some grand sweeping epic unfold across the centuries. Instead we get Sunday School presentations and a story about loyalty and betrayal that has all the plot intrigue of the movie Office Space. I'd never been so bored at reading a Left Behind book as I did trudging through the 300 or so pages between the extreme ends of the thousand years.

Anyway, it's now almost a century into the millennial kingdom, and the world's population is split into two groups: the "naturals" and the "glorifieds". The glorifieds are the ones who got raptured or died and went to Heaven for all those years, then came back to Earth when Jesus returned. They don't age and they don't marry or otherwise have romantic emotions, so they don't have children. The naturals are the ones who either survived the Tribulation at the end of Glorious Appearing or are the children of those survivors, who can still marry and reproduce. "Arrested development" takes on a whole new meaning at this point in history, where anyone under the age of one hundred is not only considered to be still a juvenile, but acts like one too. So there are people in their eighties and nineties that are getting drunk, smoking weed and all other kinds of lewd behavior. The catch is that if they don't wise up and believe in Jesus (who is physically ruling the Earth at this point) they die right on their one hundredth birthday. Everyone else is immune to death (although by 800 years into the millennium the original naturals ain't in the best of health). The only other people who are dying prematurely are the ones who are seriously doing blasphemous things, like when a pervert natural spontaneously combusts while trying to rape a glorified.

(How this book deals with sex was one of the more ridiculous things that I've ever read. If, say on a scale of 1 to 10 for sexuality in literature that some of the stuff in Frank Herbert's last two Dune novels was a 10, then "glorified" Buck's wonderment at being delighted that he'll never have sex with his wife again is a negative-12. How in the world did this get written with a straight face, much less published?)

The main conflict in the book comes from The Other Light movement: those who willingly refuse to submit to Christ's rule, even though they know they'll die at one hundred years old. Compared to the machinations of Nicolae Carpathia throughout the previous books, The Other Light seems like a tacked-on afterthought: not much depth to these guys at all. And the biggest real damage they do in this story is forging an e-mail. Oh, for the good old days of dramatic horror when believers were getting dragged to the guillotine...

How can anyone take this book seriously, either as a gripping story or as a Christian ministry tool? This late in the game, nobody new is being witnessed to in Kingdom Come. If you're here reading this you were already either a rabid fan of the series or (like me) you felt some horrible obligation to finish it, in hopes that all that time and money invested in the prior novels is going to somehow pay off. LaHaye and Jenkins had some real "running room" to do something new and refreshing here at the end. Instead we get more of the "same old same old".

The spiritual exposition is rampant. But it adds nothing to what you've already read if you've gone through any one of the previous novels. Like I said, the only reason you would probably be reading Kingdom Come is if you'd already read the other books. There is nothing new that you'll find to think about in this book, in spite of how thick Kingdom Come is padded with pre-trib theology. At least Francisco's "money speech" in Atlas Shrugged challenged your brain to ponder deeply, even though in real life Francisco would have still been talking long after everyone had left and the guys had come to mop the floor for the night. Think of that kind of narrative, but much more monotonous. That these unwieldy treatises of pre-trib philosophy keep interrupting the few times when the action starts to really get going doesn't help matters much.

Oh yeah: how much actual "writing" was done on this book? Because there are practically entire chapters that plagiarize verbatim the Holy Bible. It was like somebody just did a wholesale "cut and paste" from Bible software and into the text of the story. I wish it could be that easy for me to write a bestselling book!

Kingdom Come is vapid. It is banal. It is cheap. Too much of the story seems like a cop-out...

I am seriously stunned at how much I have come to hate this book.

And I tried... honestly, I tried my darndest... these past few days to find something good to say about it. But it's just not coming, folks. Kingdom Come ranks as one of the WORST things that I ever spent time and money on.

This book, and what Left Behind as a whole became in the end, should be a dire warning for any of us who profess belief in Christ and try to use our creative talents to serve God. If God gave us these things, then we should use them to the utmost of our ability and strength. We should have nothing less than the most absolute greatest passion, whether its writing or filmmaking or athletics or painting or whatever else that we have an aptitude for, in making these gifts reflect well on the One who bestowed them upon us to begin with.

Because Kingdom Come seems even less than a half-hearted attempt. It would have been better to have not written or published this to begin with. But it was. Which makes me wonder what was the biggest motivation in doing Left Behind at all: God, or money?

I don't know anymore. All I do know is that for years the Left Behind novels have taken up considerable space on my bookshelves, and I can't in good conscience leave them there without being embarrassed for their presence. Filling it with Michael Stackpole's "Battletech" novels seems like a much wiser use of the space at this point. What's going to happen to my Left Behind collection? Probably taken down and put in a plastic storage tote, out of sight and out of mind.

And maybe someday my children will find it and ask "Daddy what's this?" and I'll tell them the sad sordid account of how a story that started out so terrific with Left Behind became so wasted by the time Kingdom Come happened. Then the books will wind up in the basement where the second-rate paper will become nourishment for the rats and cockroaches and slowly but surely fading away.

Let it fade.

(I still think that Mark Waid and Alex Ross would do a lot better job at telling this story. If you want a really good book to read, check out their Kingdom Come from DC Comics!)

7 comments:

qemuel said...

My mother is a big fan of this series; she'll be disappointed to hear that it went out with a "whimper" rather than a "bang" (she waits for paperbacks).

I could never get into them personally, but I feel your pain over having something important to you lose its way. The DRAGONLANCE series was very important to my development as a teenager, but as it gained popularity and turned into a money-making behemoth I became disenchanted with the whole thing. I believe there are over 100 books now (I gave up around 35-40 out of disgust).

I concur with your thoughts on the Waid/Ross KINGDOM COME, and rank it as one of DC Comics' greatest triumphs.

Anonymous said...

One thing that was so great about the early books of the series was the interpretation of scriptural prophecies. They described abstract or symbolic things from the Bible in ways that was believable, interesting, and entertaining.

But, naturals vs. glorifieds? Some people reproducing and some people not? People dying at the age of 100 if they still don't believe? Evil still existing in what is supposed to be "a new heaven and a new earth" ruled physically by Christ? Where is this stuff in the Bible?

I used to think that Left Behind was like Biblical fiction for believers but could also serve as science fiction or fantasy to non-believers, but now it sounds like it's sci-fi/fantasy for everyone.

Although I like the series too, it gradually started to decline about halfway through. I had always thought the series was going to be seven books long, so making it 12 was already a bit of a stretch. While Glorious Appearing was good in some ways, it contained the least believable examples of the Biblical interpretation aspect that I had come to enjoy and appreciate in the earlier books.

The three prequel books and this sequel seem really tacked on. It was hard making it through the 1st of the prequel books, I stopped a quarter of the way through the 2nd one and never returned to it, I think I skimmed a few chapters of the 3rd in Barnes & Noble (which was good enough), and thanks to your review, I'll ignore the sequel altogether.

I think I'm about ready to sell the two prequel books on eBay and consider only the primary 12 books to be the true series worth keeping on the bookshelf and just disregard the added fluff of the prequels and Kingdom Come.

Chris Knight said...

Last night I spent a good part of the evening skimming through the entire series (minus the three prequels which I've never read). The last time that the Left Behind series was *really* good was Desecration, and that wasn't even the entire book. The part where Carpathia rides into the temple on a huge pig before cutting its throat and throwing its blood around while bathing in it was *kewl*. The two books after that are completely forgettable apart from a few death scenes. Glorious Appearing was *way* too stretched out... not to mention that it had Jesus arriving on the scene decked out like a professional wrestler.

There were some really bright spots in this series. Heck, I remember when Assassins came out and all the fans spending the next year endlessly debating theories about who "did it". Left Behind reached its climax with The Indwelling and The Mark and went downhill fast after that. It stopped being something you could read for pleasure and instead it was like we were getting hit upside the head with Bible lessons. Too many Bible lessons for a book series like this. And then to have had one last chance to redeem itself like with this newest book...

What a waste. Darn tragedy, it is.

Niya Speaks said...

Okay, I know I'm like years late but what can I say, I was waiting for the book to hit the $2 bookstore. Anyhoo, I had to comment because I believe your review to be by far the funniest I have read concerning Kingdom Come! I was so looking forward to reading this book 'til I read the 1st Chapter excerpt. What irritated me a bit was Buck's name change back to Cameron. The character's seemed so soft and pin cushioney that it was hard to imagine them the way they once were; believer's and lovers of Christ, but with personality. Thanks a ton for your review, I shall with much regret pass on reading this novel...okay, unless I see it in the $2 bookstore. But for no other reason shall I return to my former enthusiasm. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

No, you're not too late. A few people are still reviewing these books. Here's a solid 3-parter from a former fan of the series at the "Speculative Faith" archives. (The site is going by "Faith Fusion" nowadays but it's the same blogger.)

Part 1: http://specfaith.ritersbloc.com/2007/06/20/kingdomcomepart1.aspx

Part 2: http://specfaith.ritersbloc.com/2007/06/27/kingdomcomepart2.aspx"

Part 3: http://specfaith.ritersbloc.com/2007/07/11/kingdomcomepart3.aspx

Sorry for the non-linking thing. I didn't know if you use HTML here. Just copy & paste the URLs and they'll work.

Mister Grenade said...

Todd Dubya, ridiculously after the fact that this response is, I was scratching my head when I recently read the 100 years to doom thing about the synopsis (my last read LB book was The Mark, I think), so I requested spiritual insight from the Lord to avoid rush judgement, and I was lead (via 'googling') to where the authors got that from: Isaiah 65:17-25.
This stands as a prophecy for after the Tribulation. Verse 20 says "There shall no more be an infant of days, nor an old man who has not filled his days: for the child shall die an hundred years; but the sinner being an hundred years old shall be accursed." I already was aware Millenial denizens will die from egregious sins committed, especially as there is no tempter to share the blame with as the enemy will be locked in the 'bottomless pit' Rev. 20:1-3,7-10.
As far as the Raptured (or even Tribulation-slain) couples never procreating again (assuming they all still are married?) when the Millenial Kingdom and beyond (Rev. 21&22) hits? I personally just do not know if they are in the same boat as those in 'this world/age' that Jesus described as given to marriage while first alive but being 'like the angels', who don't marry, in the Resurrection (Rev 20:5, Mark 12:25 & Luke 20:34). I keep in mind that to me Revelation Chapters 20 through 22 makes no clear assertion that people will stop being born after God combines Heaven & Earth after the MK (ie Jeremiah 1:5 "Before I formed you, I knew you...". Perhaps the Lord is saying He knows that some were just born to glory and worship and praise in Him). They probably should have found a way to share all of their Biblical research.

Anonymous said...

Yes, "Speculative Faith" was a huge fan back in the day but this book made him question a few things. Still tries to be nice about it, though. There's a long (or long-winded) review on Potluck (http://oldmaid.jallman.net), fwiw.