YouTuber The Critical Drinker (a.k.a. Will Jordan) has amassed more than a million followers by reviewing and taking apart movies and television series in savage diatribes that are as amusing as they are insightful.
By no means a pretentious snob, Jordan will watch everything and recommend a wide variety of films — classics such as “Das Boot,” new blockbusters such as “Top Gun: Maverick,” foreign films such as “RRR,” or arthouse fare such as “The Lighthouse.” In each of his videos, Jordan continually stresses the basics of storytelling and cuts through hype, gimmicks, and identity politics that filmmakers rely on to earn acclaim and popularity.
While some of Jordan’s basic insights about what makes for good storytelling might seem obvious, they have proven difficult for the entertainment industry to consistently apply. For instance, every scene in a movie or TV show should do three things: advance the plot, develop the characters, and world-build. Or ditch “The Message” (woke agenda) and just tell a good story. And stay consistent with the logic of the characters and setting, even in fantasy and sci-fi stories.
However, when he’s not drinking and critiquing the latest slop from Hollywood, Jordan is actually an accomplished novelist who practices what he preaches, having written 11 books of the bestselling “Ryan Drake” series. His books understandably have a cinematic quality, being fast-paced, suspenseful, and efficiently told. Despite his online persona as a drunken Scotsman slurring his speech and trying to fix the latest Star Wars trilogy, Jordan is in reality a disciplined writer who is devoted to tight narrative structures and maximizing reader engagement.
Jordan’s new novel “Dark Harvest” is no exception. A departure from the “Ryan Drake” series, it tells the story of a new hero, Cameron Becker, a ex-soldier who must save the world from an impending zombie apocalypse. Jordan’s style is consistent, imitating a good action movie and sticking close to the plot. While a premise of a virus that turns people into zombies seems rather played out in 2022, he successfully redeems the genre through his lean, action-packed approach to writing and incorporating some of the real-world concerns brought about by Covid — a bit like “World War Z” and “Contagion,” but much better than both those films.
For the most part, the events of “Dark Harvest” are fairly straightforward. Becker serves as the private bodyguard in Baghdad for a Russian scientist. When his team is ambushed and the scientist is kidnapped, he seeks out the scientist and discovers a deeper plot to release a virus that turns people into zombies. This brings him into contact with epidemiologist Lori Dalton who helps him find a way to stop the terrorist group behind the plot.
Becker and Dalton are continually on the run as the terrorists and law enforcement — not to mention, the infected people wanting to eat them — seek to take them down. Both protagonists are smart, resourceful, brave, and strong. Their antagonists are cruel and duplicitous nihilists hell-bent on setting the world ablaze and settling personal grudges at any cost.
Yet for all the familiar conventions, there are more than a few twists and complications to make the story unpredictable and interesting. The settings — the snowy Ural Mountains, the streets of Baghdad, and the busy terminals at Heathrow — are different and well-described.
In order to keep up the quick pace of the narrative, Jordan frequently switches perspectives in each chapter. These perspectives eventually collide as circumstances bring characters from diverse backgrounds together. This is not just diversity for diversity’s sake, but diversity for the sake of reflecting a global reality. Each main character, along with quite a few minor characters, has a point of view and experiences the same reality differently. This may be cliche, but the technique helps the world of the novel feel bigger and more consequential.
The switching of perspectives also allows Jordan to minimize exposition and adhere to his rule of making each scene advance the plot, develop the characters, and build up the setting. There is nothing bloated or “flabby,” just the relevant details to help the story move along. It’s a far cry from the speculative fiction of big names such as Neal Stephenson who build out every possible tangent while progressing the plot at a snail’s pace.
True to his rule of keeping to the logic of his world, Jordan’s characters are surprisingly realistic, facing numerous setbacks and coping with limitations. True, the protagonists take a serious beating and can recover surprisingly fast, but there’s nothing superhuman about them and death is always possible. Even the science of a virus that turns people into flesh-eating zombies is believable — Jordan definitely read up on Covid-19 and applied some of that information here.
That said, Jordan can’t resist the one-liners and various tropes that one comes to expect in an action thriller. It’s good comfort food for readers who, like Jordan, also like to play “Resident Evil” and watch James Bond movies. Then again, lines like, “What can I say? I’m a professional pain in the ass,” may be a turnoff for more serious readers.
It’s also the main weakness of an otherwise fun book. Jordan’s so focused on getting the plot and action sequences right that he becomes a little lazy with his characters, many of whom feel too much like movie stereotypes. Some of the banter between Becker and Dalton elicits a smile, but it’s difficult to view them as unique individuals with their own psychology. They and the surrounding cast don’t stand for much beyond doing what’s right in the moment and staving off Armageddon. Although these circumstances really don’t call for much introspection or moral quandaries, even a little more elaboration in this regard could make the story more compelling.
Jordan’s fixation on the plot also detracts from exploring some interesting themes and arguments, particularly in a post-Covid world. Although this is deliberate — Jordan even states in his acknowledgments that “it was never my intention to use this book to critique or comment on real-life events and politics” — it nevertheless feels like a missed opportunity. The social commentary and hypothesizing are often the best part of zombie flicks, particularly satirical ones like “Shaun of the Dead” and “Zombieland.”
Of course, this is a matter of taste, and Jordan is probably right to avoid controversy and let the events of the novel speak for themselves. Moreover, it’s a small critique of what is a delightful read that will hopefully be the beginning of an ongoing series of books, and maybe a possible movie adaptation. For all the boozing, cursing, and jokes about strippers, when it comes to storytelling, The Critical Drinker knows exactly what he’s talking about, and he backs it up yet again with “Dark Harvest.”