Beneath a Scarlet Sky and the Demise of Quality Novels

June 28, 2020 by Yoona Cho


For months, Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan has held the coveted point-of-purchase display spot (aka center placement) of online and brick-and-mortar bookstores. Advertised as a global bestseller based on a true tale of Nazi-infested Italy, Beneath a Scarlet Sky seems to have everything that renders modern books successful: action, romance, and—perhaps most importantly—competent PR agents. After leafing through its pages though, this reporter was left utterly bamboozled at how such a mediocre book could be so commercially revered.

Succinctly summarized, Beneath a Scarlet Sky follows Italian teenager Pino Lella as he encounters love, spies on Nazis, and smuggles Jewish refugees across the border. You may ask, what implication does the intriguing title convey? The answer is absolutely nothing. The phrase “beneath a scarlet sky” is mentioned once with little contextual harmony, for the sole purpose of justifying the title. But aside from the ostentatiously contrived title, this book has three other critical issues: its narration, character development (or lack thereof), and historical accuracy.

Firstly, the narration throughout the book was more often than not either illogically expedient or painfully sluggish. At times, characters were killed off in such an abrupt and lackadaisical manner that it took several pages to fathom what had happened. In other segments, minuscule details such as a mountain-climbing sequence were fecklessly stretched out to the point of extreme ennui. Moreover, the abecedarian vocabulary, cliché metaphors, and cringe-inducing hyperboles all contributed to an overall disoriented, awkwardly-paced storyline.

Another major issue was the lack of character development for both Pino and his love interest, Anna. Pino is depicted as an profoundly virtuous hero (a “Gary Sue”, if you will), leaving no room for maturation and curtailing the book’s value as a bildungsroman. Understandably, there are realistic circumstances to consider: “Pino” is inspired by a real person of the same namesake whom the author wished to portray in a flattering light. Ironically, these good intentions have done a disfavor to Mr. Lella in that his character strikes readers as factitious and unlikable. Similarly, Pino’s love interest Anna is difficult to build rapport with, mainly due to a lack of elaboration on her individuality otherwise than being a stunningly beautiful woman. As the two main characters come off as distant and aloof, it is nearly impossible to become emotionally invested in both them and their shallow relationship.

Lastly, the outlandish sequence of events abate the credibility of so-called “real-life events” and “historical accuracy”. For example, Pino fixes a random car, which happens to belong to a Nazi general that hires the 17 year old as his personal driver/translator on the spot. It also turns out that by some magical twist of fate, the woman he had been enamoured with for years is the maid at this general’s house. Indeed, writers are free to make creative decisions as they see fit; however, when done in an indecorous manner (like with this book), the ensuing story becomes so improbable and egocentric that it is no a realistic novel, but rather an epic.

In a nutshell, the aforementioned blunders of Beneath a Scarlet Sky greatly diminished its literary value and emotional impact. Its subpar quality has brought to this reporter’s attention an often neglected, yet significant issue: fast literature. With the profit generating mechanism of the publishing industry rewarding “hype” over literary excellence, publishers have been compromising quality in favor of provocative themes and sheer quantity. The most notable culprit of this phenomenon is Amazon, as exemplified through its publication of read-once-and-throw-away books such as Beneath a Scarlet Sky. By shamelessly promoting substandard books that are easily marketable, Amazon is churning out new books at the peril of their overall deterioration. Admittedly, such a swift publication process is not without its perks: aspiring authors now have a larger platform to gain writing experience, while readers have access to an increasingly diverse selection of titles. However, the industry’s fixation on marketability over excellency has inevitably maimed the success of deserving works and diluted the overall quality of modern literature. To prevent the further deterioration of novels, it is the responsibility of us bibliophiles to internalize a standard of quality independent of capitalistic scales. So, the next time you want to purchase a book, check it out on review sites such as Goodreads or skim through it first instead of relying on bestseller charts.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.