Book Review: Enigmatic Pilot by Kris Saknussemm

Perhaps book reviewers are meant to relegate themselves to commenting on what’s inside a book. Yet there are times the publishing process plays a role in a book. Unfortunately, that process damages Kris Saknussemm’s latest novel, Enigmatic Pilot: A Tall Tale Too True. (Full disclosure: Saknussemm is a “Facebook Friend” of mine but I know nothing of the editorial and marketing decisions for this book. Likewise, he won’t know the theme or content of this review unless and until he reads it.)

I was introduced to Saknussemm’s writing five years ago when I reviewed Zanesville, the first book in a proposed series called The Lodemania Testament. Enigmatic Pilot is the new installment in that series but while Saknussemm’s writing remains strong, the book suffers not only from being an installment in a series but from the fact those unfamiliar with Zanesville may not realize it is part of a series. For some inexplicable reason, nothing in the book and none of the written or online promotional material from Del Rey, Random House’s science fiction and fantasy imprint, tells readers this story of Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd is about a key character of The Lodemania Testament. As a result, portions of the book that draw out detailed information about Lloyd’s background and influences may strike those who have not read Zanesville as lengthy diversions that slow down the story.

More important, newcomers may have valid complaints that they feel they major, or even minor, plotlines are never completed. For example, the book opens in Dakota Territory in 1869 with a Seventh Calvary lieutenant involved in an almost hallucinatory event. After 15 pages detailing that experience, we never return to the scene or the lieutenant’s story. Instead, the balance of the book follows part of the exodus the Sitturd family from Zanesville, Ohio, to Texas in 1844, when Lloyd is six years old. Then, the conclusion produces a fascinating plot twist but one that newcomers will feel simply leaves them hanging. While readers may not need a detailed road map, to leave them without any of the background that informs the story or that Enigmatic Pilot is part of a series is to leave them feeling as if they have been on several detours to nowhere. Yet the book design and marketing don’t even hint that Zanesville might give readers insight into some of the symbolism and plot threads in this book. In fact, Saknussemm’s bio on the Del Rey website makes no mention of Enigmatic Pilot even though it does say Zanesville is the first in The Lodemania Testament series. Depending on the editorial process, the possibility also exists that Saknussemm bears a share of the blame as the book itself takes a reverse approach, making no reference to it being part of the series or to Zanesville.

There is no doubt, though, this is part of the series. Zanesville opened with Lloyd’s birth in 1838 and described him as “one of the most neglected geniuses in history.” As a child, Lloyd is whisked up into a tornado in Dustdevil, Tex., only to be returned to the exact spot unharmed some 20 minutes later. In July 1913, after a life as an inventor, businessman, recluse and cult leader, Lloyd again disappears in another tornado in Dustdevil, this time never to be heard from again. The bulk of the book then focused on a post-apocalyptic America (making it seemingly more appropriate for the Del Rey imprint than Enigmatic Pilot, which remains in pre-Civil War America).

Although Enigmatic Pilot is replete with tornado and whirlwind symbols, they are foreshadowings only readers of Zanesville will grasp. Here, the focus is not on Lloyd’s future but how he embarked for Texas as a child. We learn that Lloyd was not just a neglected genius when he died but a genius from his earliest years. Saknussemm’s eye for history and historical fiction is as keen as his observations on the human condition and his at times trenchant humor. We follow Lloyd’s adventures/quest as he and his parents struggle through what was then part of the western frontier to reach Texas, where Lloyd’s uncle has invited them to live with him on 300 acres of land he has named Dustdevil. As the family travels from Zanesville to Cincinnati to Louisville to St. Louis and St. Joseph, Lloyd becomes friends with and learns from riverboat gamblers, medicine show charlatans and escaped slaves and encounters primitive androids and perhaps even extraterrestrials. Many of his adventures take on the sense of tall tales in Mark Twain’s Missouri but involving forces not found in Twain tales.

Although only six, Lloyd assumes leadership of the family on the journey as his father, a blacksmith and failed inventor, falls into alcoholism and his mother, a Sea Islands Gullah with a voodooish touch to her, is almost distraught by the seeming disintegration of her family. Saknussemm’s portrayal of her dialect, though, ranges from difficult to nearly unintelligible, creating an occasional small roadblock for readers. Lloyd supports the family and the story is built around his preternatural talents in science and technology. (He also discovers a libido and carnality far beyond his years.)

At the age of five, Lloyd is advising his father on the best way to build a time machine and himself builds a mechanical beaver that convinces Zanesville he has crossed the line. His talent for inventing flying machines leads to his adventures in manned flight in St. Louis in a major storyline. These exceptional abilities also bring him to the attention of and in touch with secret societies that, as in Masonic or Illuminati conspiracy theories, control the course of human history. Here, the battle for control of the world is centered in America between the Spirosians and the Vardogers, both in possession of seemingly occult powers and lost knowledge and technology far beyond that known to the 19th century. Both sects want Lloyd on their side, one openly and the other far more secretively. While Lloyd resists the invitation to access hidden knowledge, serious question exists whether he — or anyone — can ultimately remain neutral in this ultimate struggle for control behind the scenes.

For those familiar with Zanesville, Enigmatic Pilot provides clues, insight and in-depth background for the series arc. Unfortunately, those reading Saknussemm for the first time may well feel he has short-changed them. Enigmatic Pilot is structured such that it can not really stand on its own. Many readers will guess that at least another book will be coming but, again, there is no indication anywhere that this is part of an intended series. While it certainly is not imperative to read Zanesville first, readers unaware of the background of that book or the series as a whole may miss the point of much of the book. Newcomers should at least be told that Enigmatic Pilot is just a step in a novelistic journey in America’s past and potential future. Both they and the book are done a disservice because someone failed to do them that courtesy.

It is sometimes hard to tell the pilgrim from the fugitive.

Kris Saknussemm, Enigmatic Pilot

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