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Under the Dome, By Stephen King

Stephen King first had the idea for this novel in 1976, began it, abandoned it, and did not return to it until 2007, when he finally felt confident of tackling the technical problems that his theme posed.

The reading public has reason to be grateful for the 31-year maturation period: the result is an epic that is both thought-provoking and insanely readable. As a reviewer with limited time, I wouldn't usually opt for a novel of 877 pages – but I finished this tome in three days.

The town of Chester's Mill, Maine, is mysteriously encased in an invisible, impenetrable barrier, cutting the population off from the outside world (just like in The Simpsons Movie).

In a surprisingly but believably short time, the normal rules of civic society are ditched. Used-car salesman Big Jim Rennie becomes the town's dictator, aided by a specially recruited police force of vicious thugs. Colonel Dale Barbara, an Iraq war veteran, leads the outnumbered opposition.

It's a straightforward fight between good and evil – or liberal values and naked power. Yet it is not as simplistic as this might suggest: Barbara, the good guy, has a guilty conscience about his part in interrogating terror suspects in Baghdad, while Rennie's son, a psychotic killer, experiences the best feeling he's ever had when he rescues a little girl and feels her arms around his neck.

Both heroes and villains are human and believable, and King handles the huge cast of characters with aplomb. Some may find the storytelling style too direct, and King has a habit of using dialogue to reveal exactly what he wants us to know about that character at that point. It was also a mistake to include a dog who can understand human speech, including messages from ghosts. But you have to admire the verve, the energy, the endless invention. It's popular literature, yes. But if only all popular literature were this good.