Category Archives: Dystopia

Spark by John Twelve Hawks

Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 320
Year: 2014, Pb 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Spark by John Twelve HawksReview
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.

Golden Son (Red Rising 2) by Pierce Brown

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton/Del Rey
Pages: 464
Year: 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Golden Son by Pierce BrownReview
Before I get going here, I must advise that you really have to read Red Rising before you read Golden Son or this review. And once you’ve read Red Rising, you will have the ground swept out from under your feet because although Red Rising is a powerful, gripping read, in my opinion, it is blown out of the water by its successor. Golden Son is astonishing. It is so intense it is exhausting, not a single page is wasted. Comparisons are made between Red Rising and Hunger Games and others. In the future, I’ll be very surprised if Red Rising isn’t the series to which others are compared.

Suitably warned, on with the review.

A couple of years have passed since the golden Darrow emerged victorious from the Academy, his friends now scattered across the dominions. Nero au Augustus, ArchGovernor of Mars is shaping Darrow into a creature of war, moulding him with war games, working him into his schemes. But everything is about to collapse as war breaks out between the factions. The Bellona family is set on destroying Augustus, seizing power for themselves, while the sovereign is caught in the middle of chaos, enflamed by her own grand plans. And there, somewhere, watching it all, is Ares, the man who would bring them all down on their heads, the Golds brought low, the Reds risen high and all of the colours in between given their own place in an equal society. But Ares, just like everyone else, is being manipulated. Nobody can be trusted. Enemies become friends while friends are now enemies – Darrow’s personal war with Cassius is all the more tragic because of their former friendship – and no one, especially Darrow, is what they seem. For some, including Darrow, this is agonising.

I don’t want to give anything more away. That would, though, be a difficult thing to do because Golden Son is packed to the gills with so much plot, character development, emotion, drama and action, that I cannot think of anything comparable. The pace is breathtaking, so much so that I had to read this book in frequent short chunks. Darrow is our hero, flawed as he might be, troubled as he most certainly is, and his experiences are overwhelming. I found it impossible to spend too long with him at a time. It was just exhausting, but not in a bad way. In an absolutely fantastic way.

Aside from all the intrigue, fights and even space battles, the temperature is raised yet higher by a series of gobsmacking twists. Some of the things we learn are stunning. Finally we meet Ares, finally others learn the Red truth about Darrow, and what that all means is staggering. I must mention that the ending of Golden Son is a cliffhanger like none other. Unbelievable. I finished it in the small hours of the morning, my heart racing, wailing at Pierce Brown for making me wait for part 3 but also well aware that I’d just finished a very special book indeed.

I didn’t love Red Rising as much as most did. For me, it was war games, and very nasty ones too, for adolescents. It was far too similar to The Hunger Games and I tired of the relentless violence. But I knew that Golden Son would be the book for me. Darrow is now freed of the Academy just as the series is freed of these familiar YA dystopian themes. Golden Son soars, free of the Academy, Mars and of our preconceptions. Darrow has become a leader of men and women. His speeches inspire, his actions impress and devastate, while his private grief wipes us out. The story is told in the first person, by Darrow himself, and the result is an extraordinary, powerful journey. As I’ve said already, it is exhausting, intense, astonishing.

There is more to Golden Son that Darrow. The men and women he leads are every bit as remarkable, each being taken to their personal limit. There is love and so there is also grief – no life is safe in this world. There are plenty of stories here, wrapped around the heart of the novel, which is Darrow.

Golden Son might be one of the earliest books of the year but I have no doubt that it will be counted among the most memorable of 2015’s novels. Pierce Brown is to be applauded for what he’s created. Golden Son is an extraordinary achievement, a tremendous read and is, in my opinion, nothing less than spectacular.

Other review
Red Rising

Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 243
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Shovel Ready by Adam SternberghReview
Spademan used to be a garbage collector in New York City. But all that changed when a dirty bomb tore through Times Square, ripping the core out of the city, emptying it of the living and filling it with the dead, among them Spademan’s wife. The poorest with nowhere to go live in the streets that others risk only with a geiger counter in their hands. A few of the wealthy have stayed behind in almost empty luxury apartment blocks, withdrawn into the limnosphere, a virtual reality, safe in their beds, dreaming, fed by drips, cared for by nurses, surely the largest group of any people who choose to stay and make a living in this wreck of a city. Spademan has stayed, too. He still picks up the trash but now it is human. Spademan is a hitman and he will calmly kill any man or woman above the age of 18 – he doesn’t discriminate, anyone could be his. All it takes is just one phonecall.

On this particular day, Spademan receives instructions to kill the runaway daughter of an evangelist. The death caller is none other than the girl’s own father. On the chase, Spademan pays a visit to the girl’s uncle with whom, he learns, she had sought sanctuary but he, reluctantly woken from his virtual reality dreams, had turned her over to two other demons, also set on her trail. As Spademan uncovers the true depravity of this girl’s family, the killer learns that the Times Square dirty bomb might not have destroyed his humanity entirely after all. Leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, Spademan takes on a new mission of his own.

Shovel Ready is an unusual book. Short, snappy and sharp, just like its first person narration by Spademan, the novel presents a quirky mix of crime-noir and science fiction. The sentences are brief, there are no quotation marks, the pages whip through the fingers. Spademan’s mood is dark and as we see more of the damage suffered by New York City and its inhabitants it’s not hard to see why.

For me, my favourite part of the novel was this vivid visualisation of a near-future New York City, destroyed by bombs and now haunted by the poor, the desperate, the evil or the sleeping rich. Future technology, especially that which creates the limnosphere, clashes with the misery on the streets and, because we learn so little about how life is going on outside the city, it feels as if we are trapped on an island, cut off from the world. But despite this isolation there is a strong sense that the planet is in trouble.

The crime element of the novel is bloody and shocking. The corruption of the limnosphere, the evil of the evangelists and the sheer nastiness of some towards their own relatives is brutal. Spademan is relentless and this does risk him turning into a completely unsympathetic character but, for me, he is saved from this by his memories of the dirty bomb, memories which move more frequently through the novel as it continues. I can’t say that I ever really liked Spademan, and the style did take a little getting used to, but I was fascinated by the world he lives in and the people he moves among.

Shovel Ready is a fast, urgent read with its vivid worldbuilding matched by an intriguing and unusual central figure. Spademan will return in January in Near Enemy and I’m intrigued to discover what lies in store for him and for us.

World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters (The Last Policeman 3)

Publisher: Quirk Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

World of Trouble by Ben H. WintersReview
World of Trouble completes Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman trilogy – this is not a book to read without having devoured The Last Policeman and Countdown City first. Also do beware that the review below may contain information about the other two books that you might prefer not to know if you haven’t read them yet. So warnings done…

Henry (Hank) Palace will always be a detective. It’s in his blood, it fuels his days, and not even the end of days can stop him. Maia, an asteroid on a collision course with Earth is now just two weeks away. With only days to live, Hank is driven to solve his last mystery and it’s a personal one, too. His younger sister Nico is on the run, caught up with a group that believes the predictions of Earth’s destruction are a conspiracy and they are set to do something about it. Hank knows first-hand that they have considerable resources as well as numbers but his hunt is not inspired by any sense of hope, he simply wants to see his sister again, the only member of his family he has left, and to know she is as safe as one can be. And so Hank, a much loved man, leaves his friends behind and sets out on his bicycle with his dog Houdini and the really rather unpleasant albeit resourceful Cortez to follow the clues to Nico.

The journey takes them across a desolate America, one divided into damaged towns that Hank grades by colour depending on their hostility to strangers, from red (the most violent) to green (inhabited by people in denial). Society and government have now broken down altogether. Nowhere is safe. There is little food and water and no power or fuel. Lawlessness and fear are in control now. But Hank Palace is an extraordinary individual. He is a kind, honourable man, ever true to the values that inspired him to be a policeman. We see the shattered world through Hank’s eyes and as a result we find goodness, friendship and even hope, no matter what he sees and experiences. And he sees and experiences some terrible things.

What Hank and Cortex discover in an Ohio police station reveals another mystery that Hank will stop at nothing, bar the end of days itself, to solve. Little reveals Hank’s progress over the last three novels more than his determination and obsession to solve this final terrible case before time runs out. In The Last Policeman Hank investigated the murder of a stranger, revealing the initial stages of social collapse with the asteroid hit still six months off; in Countdown City Hank sets out to find the missing husband of the woman who helped raise himself and his sister during an especially bleak time. That case, set a couple of months before impact, introduced us to Nico’s conspiracy theories and the way in which people, and the government, were dealing with what lay in store. In this final novel, everything is more desperate, rushed, tense and so brutal and yet amongst it all Hank can still find strangers to look after. By now, the reader wants nothing more than to look after Hank.

Hank Palace is a wonderful creation and I’ve grown to care for him deeply over the three books. He has his foibles and eccentricities but he is all the more real for it. The way that he cares for his dog Houdini is loving but it isn’t sentimental. Hank meets people in this novel who treat him with the utmost hostility but he never lets it overcome him. He’s impossible to dislike. By contrast, there are others here who are despicable, monsters made not just by the circumstances of the asteroid. You need someone like Hank up against forces like this. The enemy isn’t the asteroid.

The novels are narrated by Hank in the first person present tense. I’m not usually a big fan of this style but it works here so well. It’s as if no-one, not even the author himself, knows what will happen as the asteroid comes closer and closer. Despite the tragedy, the violence and the distress, World of Trouble is not a depressing book to read. There is a humour to it and a lightness, largely thanks to the character of Hank but also thanks to the elegance and beauty of Ben H. Winters’ writing. None of the novels is long – not much more than 300 pages apiece – and the narrative gains enormously from Winters’ terrific focus. He has also combined apocalyptic science fiction with police procedural and crime fiction superbly. Without doubt, this is one of the finest trilogies I have ever read.

Throughout, the question has been how will Ben H. Winters close this trilogy. The answer to that, I am so pleased but not surprised to say, is that he closes it perfectly.

Other reviews
The Last Policeman
Countdown City

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters (The Last Policeman 2)

Publisher: Quirk Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2013
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Countdown City by Ben H. WintersReview
This is the second novel in The Last Policeman trilogy. While it could be read as a standalone, I wouldn’t recommend it. This is a trilogy to savour. The review of The Last Policeman is here.

With just 77 days until Maia, an asteroid hell bent on destroying life of Earth, hits, Detective Henry (Hank) Palace is out of a job. Police stations are closed, as are most businesses, and only the most persistent of optimists can bother to bring some normality to everyday life, through running cafes with little food or opening shops with little stock. Suicides are commonplace, many other people have vanished to chase their Bucket List dreams. Electricity is only a memory as are phones, money, fuel. Hank Palace relies on his ten-speed bicycle to get around New Hampshire, his dog Houdini towed along in a little wagon. Hank might not have official cases to crack but, ever the detective, Hank cannot stop identifying puzzles, chasing leads, writing down all the evidence, helping people. Right now he works to help the children orphaned or abandoned on the streets of Concord, finding their lost items, giving them a little bit of security, some adult protection.

One day, Martha Cavatone, the woman who helped to look after Hank and Nico during a most desperate time in their own childhood, asks Hank for help. Her husband has disappeared. Everyone else thinks, and the clues certainly support this, that Martha’s husband is one of the many Bucket Listers, but Hank agrees that he would never have left Martha to die alone without good reason. Wanting to help but also satisfying his own deeply ingrained need to keep being a detective, Hank calls on his sister Nico to help him help Martha. Nico, though, is wayward, defiant and brave, believing that America and the world are victim to a great conspiracy. She knows people that can assist Hank in his quest and so she takes him into another world, one in which the word ‘hope’ might just survive in its vocabulary.

Countdown City is the second novel in Ben H. Winter’s fine Last Policeman trilogy. Combining apocalyptic thrills with police procedural and crime fiction, this series is utterly compelling. Its portrait of American society in its terrified death throes is as disturbing as it is vivid. In this middle novel, the chaos of complete anarchy is close – the only factor keeping it away is that water still flows through the taps. But you just know that it can only be days or just hours until that last symbol of civilisation is wrenched away. Hank and Nico Palace move through this landscape and it is testament to Winters’ superb skills as a writer that he makes the story of these two human beings as fascinating and absorbing as the larger story of the asteroid.

Hank and Nico’s journey allows Winters to explore the different effects that this disaster has had on society. Most memorable is their visit to what was once a University campus but is now the home to revolution. Youngsters have taken over the place, creating their own laws and lawlessness, failing to see that the collapse of society is simply the prelude to the collapse of life. And that is one of the most extraordinary aspects of this novel and to this series – the end of the world is just a countdown away but there is still hope and there is still humour and life and love. Hank and Nico have had their troubles over the years but this is a chance for them to pull together, helping someone who was there to support them years before. Then there’s Houdini the dog. His unquestioning trust and devotion is such a highlight and adds something more to Hank’s character. Hank has his obsessions and foibles but he (and Nico) is impossible not to like and in this book we care for him more than ever.

Running through it all is the drama of the crime solving, just as it did in The Last Policeman. The mystery is a good one, full of twists and surprises and not at all what I was expecting. As before, I didn’t guess where the novel was leading.

Countdown City, just like its predecessor (and its successor), is a relatively brief novel that is so hard to put down. I read all three books back to back, driven by the series’ captivating mix of disaster and humanity and how one intriguing young man is able to cope with both.

A review of the conclusion World of Trouble will follow very soon.

Other review
The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Publisher: Quirk Books
Pages: 320
Year: 2012
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

The Last Policeman by Ben H. WintersReview
When asteroid 2011GV1 (Maia) first appeared in the sky, it sparked a worldwide enthusiasm in astronomy. It would be, astronomers predicted, a spectacular near miss. But, as the days passed and the calculations were repeated and repeated, the optimism vanished. This would not be a near miss – it would be a dead hit. In just six months. What is one to do? What would you do?

Hank Palace is a young detective, newly promoted, in Concord, New Hampshire. He is honest, immensely likeable and obsessive – he shelves misplaced books in libraries, he writes down every fact in one of his father’s old notebooks, he will not led a lead drop, hanging on to it for all its worth and pursuing it to its end, no matter the cost. When the body of Peter Zell is found in the bathroom of a McDonalds, hanged, there is nothing to challenge the assumption that he is one of the many suicides you’d expect when an asteroid is about to hit. But Hank notices something odd about the body and, despite the good natured, even affectionate teasing of his colleagues, Hank will not let it go.

What follows is an intriguing and absorbing murder mystery, a whodunnit that twists and turns, pursued by the determined and earnest Hank Palace. But the mystery is just one half of The Last Policeman. There is a reason for the title. With the end of the world only six months away everyone has to ask him or herself what they want to do with their last weeks. Many cannot face it and kill themselves, some drink or drug themselves into a peaceful state of denial, some turn to spirituality or hedonism or violence, others set off in pursuit of their Bucket List, abandoning families and homes to chase after a last dream. A few can only do what they are meant to do. There is very little higher on Hank Palace’s Bucket List than fulfilling his role of being the best detective he can be, of finding justice for Peter Zell and others like him. Almost inevitably, Hank draws people to him and almost despite themselves quite a few stop to help him.

The other half of the novel is the depiction of a society beginning to lose itself in the horror and fear of what is to come. With six months to go and with the dreadful news relatively recent the world, or at least this piece of it in New Hampshire, is just about hanging on to a degree of normalcy. Many people are still working, children are still at school, there is still water, electricity, money, phonelines and internet. But it is getting harder. Phones often don’t work, fuel is about gone, business are closing, a restaurant meal costs thousands of dollars. For the moment there is still a police force but now it is regulated by a whole new set of laws. The smallest offence now will land the culprit (guilty or not) in a cell for the duration. That is a fierce deterrent – for the time being.

The Last Policeman is a terrific novel. It’s short, punchy, exhilarating and utterly addictive. Written in the first person and present tense, we see it all through Hank Palace’s eyes and experiences. I’m not a huge fan of first person present tense but if the style was made for any novel it’s this one. Hank is a marvellous companion – he is compassionate, warm, self-deprecating, persistent and active. The world might be about to end but this is by no means a depressing story. Ben H. Winters fills the pages with the humanity, often humorous, of every day interactions between Hank and his colleagues, family and friends. Hank’s batty younger sister Niko is flakey but also entertaining, introducing a touch of conspiracy theory. It’s hard not to care about her, especially as Winters deftly builds into our understanding the back story that has helped define Hank and Nico’s lives. There is a touch of tragedy throughout, not just because of the asteroid, but also because of the relationships and feelings that Hank must deal with. I was with him every step of the way.

The Last Policeman is the first in a trilogy – while one element is solved, the whodunnit, the other element, the asteroid impact, can only intensify as the days pass and I cannot wait to see how. There is so much going on, so many big themes and important questions, all feeling especially powerful because the whole scenario is dealt with so realistically. This is a very real dystopia, made even more so by the gradual pace at which it grips hold. I was captivated by the end of world scenario and enchanted by the character of Hank Palace. There was only one thing I could do after reading this and that was turn to book two, Countdown City, immediately. I am now about to read the final book. Fabulous!

Prototype by M.D. Waters

Publisher: Dutton Books
Pages: 384
Year: 2014 (24 July)
Buy: Hardback
Source: Review copy

Prototype by M.D. WatersReview
Prototype is the sequel to Archetype, published just a few months ago, and picks up where its predecessor left off. You wouldn’t want to read Prototype first so, if you read this, do be aware that it contains information about what Emma endured in Archetype. Suitably warned, on with the review!

Set in a dystopian near future America, this is a society in which women are few and far between, fertile women even more scarce. Girls are confined to Women’s Training Centers (WTCs), where they learn to be wives, waiting to be selected by the sons (or fathers) of the rich. Emma Wade knows now that this is all a lie. These girls are cloned, the hosts then killed, their new bodies engineered for childbirth. Emma had been the wife of Declan Burke, the man who created all this, but now she knows who she really is – a clone, the re-working of another man’s stolen wife, a mother, a witness to the process, someone who can never forget the original Emma’s memories of a loving husband, giving birth and fighting in the rebellion.

While Archetype followed Emma Burke’s journey to self-awareness, a path that is challenged by her strong feelings for both Declan and flashbacks of her original husband Noah, Prototype focuses on Emma Wade’s reintegration into the rebellion. It traces her painful relationship with Noah and their child (and Noah’s new partner) and, above all else, her vengeance against Declan, to claim back the lives and identities of the girls and women he has destroyed, and is still destroying. Meanwhile, Declan will stop at nothing in his determination to get Emma back.

Prototype is as fast and entertaining as its predecessor, largely thanks to the extremely likeable and confused heroine, Emma. Told in the first person in the present tense we are intimately connected with Emma’s desperate and frightened search for truth and identity. This inevitably means that other characters are less well-realised but that is largely because Emma is no more aware of their motives than we are. There are some difficult obstacles in Emma’s path and despite the fact that the rebel comrades of the original Emma know that she is strong, we know her fragility.

Archetype was confusing in places due to the mix of real time events with dreams and memories. It was difficult trying to keep pace with what was real and what was in the past. This confusion is removed in Prototype and the narrative benefits from that. As before, though, the world-building is largely absent, limited to transporters and clone technology. I would have liked to have known more about what was going on outside Emma’s world, and also outside America. There are hints that the outside world is very different. There would also have been room for more about the Women’s Training Centers and about the actual procedure of cloning.

Instead, the emphasis throughout remains on Emma’s mind as she works through her feelings for Noah, their child and Declan. The romance and dystopian themes about young womanhood, as well as the cover, suggest that this is a Young Adult book although it is not intended to be. Nevertheless, I would argue that both Archetype and Prototype would be greatly enjoyed by older teens.

I am very pleased that Prototype followed so closely on the heels of Archetype – I’m not good at dealing with cliffhangers. I think, though, that the two books would have been better served up as one. However, Prototype proved a satisfying end to an enjoyable and pleasingly disturbing story.

Other review
Archetype

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 342
Year: 2014, Pb 2015
Buy: Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas SweterlitschReview
The near future is a dark and dirty place, especially for those few who survived the nuclear blast that turned Pittsburgh and its inhabitants into ash. In a society in which adware is fed directly into the brain and eyes, virtual reality is as real as the physical world – every glance, every desire is met by suggestive images, inviting the thinker to make a purchase, take a decision, get a thrill. Every scene that has been filmed is captured in the Archive, which allows the obsessed the perfect means to spend hours and days reliving the past, feeding the grief of Pittsburgh, reliving time with lost loved ones, making believe that the flash of light and heat never happened. John Dominic Blaxton was away from Pittsburgh when the bomb claimed his wife and unborn child. He now spends his days searching for ghosts in the Archive, looking for the murdered, the victims that others are working just as hard to delete from history.

Dominic is a fascinating character and he drives Tomorrow and Tomorrow. The fact that he is suffering is obvious. His is a portrait in grief and it’s a masterly one. He tries to relive over and over moments with his wife, resetting the clock, rewinding and repeating, constantly. Not surprisingly, it drives him to madness and drugs and breakdown, resulting in his dismissal from his job searching for mysteries in the Archive, particularly a young girl, found dead in mud. Her identity had been erased, clues found only by investigating what is missing from the Archive, tracing the trail of lost pixels. Finally clean again, Dominic is hired by mogul Waverly to hunt for his daughter Albion, another victim of the bomb, but another young woman who is being systematically erased from the record.

To say that the case is not straightforward is the mightiest of understatements and it’s not long before Dominic is on the run for his life, leaving a trail of the tortured and murdered in his wake.

The mystery that Dominic becomes committed to solve is only one half of Tomorrow and Tomorrow. It is an exciting and twisty hunt, ingeniously mapped out, but the significant achievement of the novel is both the portrait of Dominic and the world-building. Dominic is surrounded by a host of characters, some dead, some alive, some not who he thinks they are, and they are all richly hinted at. This is a chase, told in the present tense, increasing the immediacy and the danger, and so we never know more than Dominic himself. But what we are given is a thorough and beautifully written portrait of our main protagonist, a man who is only just holding on and is in dire need of leaving his past where it belongs. It’s extremely moving and it’s impossible not to feel greatly for Dominic. But, as the novel makes clear time after time, Dominic is just one of many who suffers from what happened in Pittsburgh, not to mention all those lost burned souls.

For many, pornography has become the choice method of escape. Nothing is sacred. The murdered become objects of titillation on reality TV, the rights to the bodies sold by their families. The female President of the United States is little more than a glamorous executioner, signing the warrants of death live on TV in front of the condemned, followed by scandal and all the more popular and electable for it. There’s no doubt about it – this is distasteful stuff, but it is not done salaciously. Thomas Sweterlitsch is a fine writer and he walks the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t very well (I am a most squeamish reader and I had no problem with this at all). This is a most unattractive future world – hardly unsurprising if it’s a place in which nuclear attacks take place – but there are moments of hope and lightness, seen most particularly in the scenes with Dominic’s friends and family.

Thomas Sweterlitsch combines so well a murder mystery with a stunning portrait of a near future world that is truly horrifying, not just for the obvious bomb devastation and the moral and political degradation of society, but also for its nightmare portrait of social media gone mad. Thrilling and thought-proving, Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a most intriguing and original read.

Archetype by M.D. Waters

Publisher: Dutton Books
Pages: 372
Year: 2014 (6 February)
Buy: Hardback
Source: Review copy

Archetype by M.D. WatersReview
Emma awakes in a hospital bed. She has no memories at all. She cannot even remember the man who leans over her, tells her that she’s been in an accident, that he loves her, that she is his wife. She is tied down – to protect herself – and subjected to numerous tests until Emma finally begins to accept that the man, Declan, is her husband and that she is falling in love with him. He courts her all over again, very slowly reintroducing her to their beautiful home, encouraging her to paint, while guiding her through this unfamiliar world of transporter tubes, rooms with wondrous, holographic displays, even highly evolved monitoring systems. For this is the future. A time when America has been divided into two by war, when women are few and mostly infertile and when young girls are enclosed in WTCs (Women’s Training Centers) until a suitable husband is found to claim them and, hopefully, impregnate them.

Written in the first person, Archetype gives us Emma’s journey to self-awareness in her own words. Matters are complicated, though, by another voice in her head. Someone that Emma identifies as ‘Her’ tells Emma to fight back, not to accept Declan and to remember the people who suffered for her. Flashbacks and dreams are scattered throughout, frightening Emma with nightmares, showing her the faces of strangers who seem to know Emma more than she knows herself. And when one of them turns up, the pace of Emma’s ‘recovery’ quickens and the walls begin to close in.

Archetype is the first of two novels (the second is Prototype published this summer) but it is a complete story in itself. The heart of the novel belongs firmly to Emma and Declan and so it’s these two characters that we get to know more than anyone else. Of course, how well we know these two is strictly limited due to the darkness that covers Emma’s memories. But I greatly enjoyed these two portraits – one a self-portrait and the other glimpsed through shadows. The other characters, though, are far harder to empathise with or to picture. They remain vague.

Likewise, the futuristic world is never fully realised for the reader. The transporter tubes seem fantastically advanced but other areas of life aren’t. It’s difficult to picture the world because mostly we see only the insides of rooms. The little we see of the WTCs is fascinating but they are brief glimpses, or dreams. Throughout much of the novel, I wanted to know more – just like Emma. But the chapters set in the hospital are claustrophobic and compelling – it is is an oppressive place and this is strongly reflected in Emma’s narration.

Much of the novel is full of Emma’s questioning – of herself and of those around her. She is caught in a maze and is frustrated that nothing is revealed to her on her own terms. One side-effect of this is that the pace is lost towards the middle of the book. It feels like we are going round in circles and it’s possible that the reader could feel as frustrated as Emma. However, once other characters from the dreams are introduced into Emma’s waking day then the drama moves quickly onwards and the conclusion is hugely thrilling and memorable.

In places Archetype reads like a Young Adult novel but the sexual scenes are graphic enough (although few in number) to suggest otherwise. Its themes of marriage and fertility also indicate it’s targeted towards an older readership but I think that older teens would enjoy Archetype a great deal.

I’m excited to see how Prototype will pick up the threads of Archetype. The clues are there at the end of this first book but it’s quite possible that Prototype will be a different type of book entirely, with Emma free to pursue her own destiny, discovering her own power for change. Archetype is a fine first novel with an intriguing and immensely likeable heroine and it sets the stage perfectly for what I hope is to come.

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 400
Year: 2014 (28 January)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Red Rising by Pierce BrownReview
Darrow is a Red, the lowest of all the social castes who live deep within the caverns and tunnels of Mars, never seeing the sunlight, one of many willing to sacrifice his own short, harsh life in order to create a future for those not yet born. His purpose is to mine the planet for minerals, feeding the transformation of Mars into another Earth. It’s a brutalised existence. The work is dangerous, food is scarce, joy even rarer. And other factions watch every move, dissenters are dragged to the noose and loved ones must pull on their feet to ease their death. There’s not enough gravity for a clean kill. In rituals reminiscent of other ages on Earth, the Reds have one solace – to dance and to sing songs passed on from generation to generation. But if one should sing a forbidden song, one that might give the listener hope, then the singer is executed by those who aren’t Red but are Gold.

Darrow is a young man who lost his father to the hangman and is now about to lose someone else dear to him in the same way. As one of the strongest and bravest of his kind, his increasing rage is targeted by a growing rebellious force hidden in the mines. Darrow is transformed into a Gold, enhanced to become a member of a super race, majestic, proud, hard to kill. His mission is to infiltrate the governing race, be accepted as one of them in one of their command training schools, to be adopted into one of the great elite families, and that means journeying to the surface. And that’s when Darrow learns his great mistake – Mars is already a rich, green land fit for life, as long, of course, that it’s the right colour.

Red Rising is the first in a trilogy and it meticulously builds this extraordinary world around our young hero. From the mines of the underworld to the mountains and forests of the surface, Mars is brought to life in all its horror and beauty. This is, though, a grim tale. Darrow’s painful transformation into this superhuman, completed by the anguish that he goes through, is difficult to witness but not nearly as much as the utter horror of what he and his fellow Gold students must undergo within the command school. A particular strength of Red Rising is that we know all too well that Red is Good and Gold is Bad but the ordeals suffered by these students blurs this clear line. It is impossible not to feel deeply for these young people, whatever their colour.

I’m not a fan of comparing books with books but comparisons with The Hunger Games are inevitable and, I think, justified. Much of Red Rising comprises deadly games – a war – between groups of students but even before they get that far there is an act that each must take part in that gave me nightmares. Harder to bear because it followed on the deceptively ‘civilised’ introduction of the students to the school and to each other. It is almost as if a conscious decision has been made to outdo The Hunger Games in brutality. The godliness and inhumanity of the golden characters in Red Rising also reminded me of the Roman theme of The Hunger Games as did the mentors that each student is assigned and the factions that they represent. But there are original strengths here, particularly in the prose and in some of its shocks and jolts, plus the outstanding character of Darrow. The first third in particular is superb.

Despite the youth of the Darrow, Red Rising is not a Young Adult novel and so free reign is given to its language, themes and violence. At times, I found the tension relentless and the increasing desperation of the combatants difficult. Red Rising is a harrowing novel, no doubt about that at all, and its young characters are fed by rage, fear and deceit, revealing more powerfully than anything else could the type of society that controls this planet of Mars. Contributing in no small way to the tension of the novel is the fact that it is told in the first person and in the present tense by Darrow himself. What he feels, what he has to watch or do, we’re there behind his eyes.

Although the first part of a trilogy, Red Rising finishes well, giving it a completeness of its own, but by the time it ends this reader at least was ready to fly that red flag and open the mines. School is over.