Jacob Underwood believes he is dead. He exists as a Spark contained within a Shell. His Shell can brush against those of other human units but his Spark cannot be touched. It cannot smell, taste, empathise or love. Doctors might label this as Cotard’s Syndrome but to Jacob Underwood it is nothing more or less than a living death. Were Jacob to feel anything, this might trouble him but as it is he passes his time doing a job to which he is peculiarly suited – assassin.
Set in a near-future New York City, Underwood operates in a mildly dystopian world. Society has been altered by the Day of Rage, a brutal, organised campaign of terror that left countless children dead. A state of calm has been restored thanks to the faceless multinational corporation DBG, masters of surveillance, which now controls matters, keeping an eye on politicians and police, watching out for those who stir. Jacob Underwood works for their Special Services Section, his job is to put down those who question the new order.
Unable to care or feel guilt, or to distinguish right from wrong, Jacob’s violent non-life continues on an even keel until the day that his handler, Miss Holquist, gives him the task of finding Emily Buchanan, a DBG employee who has disappeared without trace, suspected of carrying stolen valuable information with her. Jacob is ordered to follow her trail, to eliminate those who have come into contact with her, and, once he has apprehended her and questioned her, to neutralise Emily. Jacob is a valued employee. He will be suitably rewarded.
But the hunt that Jacob begins will transform him and we are party to it all because Jacob himself is the one who tells us his story. In his own words, Jacob tells us about the rituals of his non-living existence, how he cares for his body and feeds his mind. He has established an elaborate set of systems for his condition, he draws charts to express it, he goes into great detail to describe his relationship with human units. His isolation is extreme, his emotional separation from others complete. But as he pursues his case, he begins to tell us about the accident that caused his original Transformation and through that we start to understand him just as he starts to question himself. Everything is tied to finding Emily and discovering what it is she knows and has stolen. It is imperative that he find her.
Spark is an immensely entertaining and satisfying thriller. I read it just after I read Shovel Ready and I found myself making comparisons between these two anti-heroes, both assassins. However, Jacob Underwood takes this role of cold, isolated killer for hire to an even greater extreme and what makes it even more intriguing is that he appears to be clinically fascinated by his own condition. Intellectually, Jacob Underwood is worth getting to know but, of course, this all contrasts with the brutality of his day job. The mystery behind the novel – Emily and her knowledge – is a compelling one and makes the pages fly by but it is matched by this scrutiny into Jacob’s personality.
All of this is set against a truly disturbing dystopian backdrop. It is not far removed from our own world and, indeed, seems nearer than ever in the light of recent events, raising important questions about the lengths society (and its leaders) will go to defend itself. There are little glimpses of futuristic technology but nothing too extreme or unimaginable. It is all plausible. And Jacob’s condition, with its calmness and explanation for everything, adds to its acceptability. But we can never forget that Jacob is a killer – he reminds us frequently and violently with his deeds.
Spark works well on several levels – as dystopian science fiction, as a conspiracy thriller and as a study of one man unlike any other. We are reminded in the novel that before his Transformation Jacob Underwood was loved. He had a mother and a girlfriend. Despite the brutality of this future vision, and its sadness, there is always hope. For a novel with such a high death count, Spark is surprisingly touching.