Catherine Bach is a survivor, something that, after the accident, everyone she meets thinks to make a remark about. How lucky she is. How blessed. She was aboard an Airbus A380-800 that fell from the sky, and she walked away. How can her life be anything but charmed?
But Catherine knows that she did not walk away from the accident unscathed, even if the scars she has taken from the crash can’t be seen. Since the accident, her life has been going downhill fast in ways that no one can detect.
That’s the set up for The Rule of Stephens (Doubleday Canada), Timothy Taylor’s fourth novel, a finely drawn, delicately woven story about a woman who beats the odds only to come back to find herself being pulled into a game she doesn’t even see.
At the time of the accident, Catherine is a brilliant doctor/engineer with a big idea. Her health-tech startup has gotten top level venture capital financing and is well on its way to unicorn territory. One is reminded of Elizabeth Holmes early in Theranos’ history; before the fall.
Everything has been going right. Catherine and team are working on an ingestible chip that will put the power of self-diagnosis into every hand. It’s a bit of med-tech that will mean a radical change in healthcare. It will change the world.
Taylor builds the startup, DIY, and Catherine and her core team beautifully. This author has ever been flawless at bringing the backdrops of his novels to startling life and he doesn’t let us down here. Not only are his depictions of first round startup financing and dealing with venture capital factions dead accurate, there is not a moment that any of it feels preachy or textbooky. We are simply there, experiencing it all with Catherine and her team. It’s an exciting ride. And, because it is Taylor, it is not only accurate, it is beautiful. Early on in DIY’s story, we see Catherine energizing her team:
She didn’t oversell her agenda. It grew in the cracks between people, between ideas, like wild grass, dense with life, energetically green.
And then, post-accident, we experience things as they start to go horribly wrong. Not a 180, but a slow glide into what might just be a run of bad luck, but what Catherine sometimes puts down to the rule of Stephens, which is “an axiom holding that the observable universe works in one of two mutually exclusive ways:” the principles of the work advanced by Stephen Hawking and the paranormal aberrations manifest in the work of Stephen King.
After the accident, Catherine’s well-oiled machine begins to hiccup in ways that are not immediately obvious. Where before everything had looked like a straight line to success, after the accident things are less streamlined. There are design glitches, security breaches and dissent from the guy who supplied the VC. Within two years of the accident, really nothing is going right, and then Catherine is contacted by one of her fellow survivors. Doesn’t she think maybe something unexplainable is going on? Perhaps something that they share.
Timothy Taylor’s newest novel is as good as it gets. A dark and twisty story spiraling downwards with the surety of elements being pulled by the coriolis effect, but all driven by this seasoned writer’s richly confident hand. The Rule of Stephens is thoughtful, propulsive and sometimes almost unbearably sad. ◊
Linda L. Richards is an author and journalist and the editor of January Magazine.