Coming to Anne Rice's latest as a virgin

August 04, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,sun staff

"Servant of the Bones," by Anne Rice. Alfred A. Knopf. 387 pages. $25.95.

Though Anne Rice's latest novel "Servant of the Bones" falls short even by the standards of page-turning fiction, she's still sure to sell it by the coffinful. She's already so sought-after that she must limit autograph sessions to ward off wrist fatigue; so popular that fans have bought more than 100 million copies of her books worldwide.

"Servant of the Bones" is a departure for Rice in that it concerns itself with neither vampires nor witches, but with an affable spirit named Azriel. The mercurial Azriel conveniently comes upon a receptive, eccentric scholar, Jonathan, hiding away in a mountaintop cabin. As he nurses Jonathan back from a fever, Azriel constructs an extraordinary tale: of his sacrificial murder in ancient Babylon, his evolution into ghosthood at the service of various figures, evil and good, to whom his boiled-down bones are passed through the years, his struggle to be his own master .

Azriel is called back to earth finally in modern times, to witness the murder of the stepdaughter of Gregory Belkin, a madman at the helm of an international cult called The Temple of the Mind.

Let me declare myself straightaway as a Rice virgin. Like many virgins, I was more than a bit trepidatious about the adventure I was about to embark on, yet filled with anticipation and hope. I was ready to be transported, to let Rice's gothic, narcotic style take hold.

Suffice to say the earth didn't move. Neither did the book.

The apex of the plot, in which Azriel is faced with Belkin's diabolical plan to annihilate much of the world, bogs down like the silliest Saturday-morning cartoon. You know the kind: A villain evil enough for mass destruction and brilliant enough to bring it off will suddenly pause to explain to his heroic nemesis just exactly what is taking place and how to stop it.

Of course, people don't read Rice for her verisimilitude. But even her trademark strengths, such as her fabled eroticism, were lacking here. Little about this book is sexy, for people love implausibly and practically indiscriminately. There's not enough to go on about any character: The reader is led through the centuries with Azriel, but never really gets to know him, other than that he is beautiful (natch) and divinely confused. A few of Rice's scenes are entertaining, but surprises were surprisingly few, and plot devices too easy to figure.

To make matters worse, Rice leads off some sections with poetry by her husband, Stan Rice. From one poem, called "Lament": "I know a frog ate a white moth./ The frog did not cry./ That's why he's a frog./ The moth did not cry./Now moth is not./"

Somehow, one wants to think this verse, like Rice's book, has some meaning in it somewhere; that it's something other than the utter piffle it seems. One wants a novel that's "dedicated to God" to live up. With its biblical evocations, its attempts at historical sweep and its commentary on modern madness, "Servant of the Bones" tries hard to compose itself into a dark narrative symphony. All I heard was the hollow ring of the cash register.

Kate Shatzkin covers courts and prisons for The Sun. Previous t that she studied at Yale Law School and spent much of her nine years as a journalist reporting on legal and social issues.

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