Marked by Alex Hughes
Marked by Alex Hughes (Roc, 2014) is the third Mindspace Investigation and the intention is to broaden, if not deepen, our understanding of the society in which the action occurs. In the first two books, we’ve been swept along by the plots with less attention given to the history of this future world and the practical mechanics of its current administration. So our hero works for the DeKalb County PD but we’ve never once had confirmation the political system remains the same after the Tech Wars. I’m not saying a change would have been necessary or even desirable after the wars, but when technology has begun to run out of control and the world has been saved when one section of the population begins to demonstrate “mutant powers”, it would not be surprising to see some changes in government. Then there’s the Tech Wars themselves. We know they happened but, so far, there’s been very little explanation of how they were started nor what led to this current resolution.
All we can say is there’s a lot of technology which very specifically supports and/or targets people with these abilities. For example, there’s screening which blanks the thoughts outside and allows the telepath enough peace to sleep. How such technology came to be developed and who paid for it to be installed in some buildings would be interesting. As it is, we get obscure glimpses of the work currently going on in a research lab which, inter alia, does work for the military. One of the police officers has a high-powered computer interface installed in his brain. Another has body technology to warn him if he’s being surveilled by a telepath. In themselves, these are interesting ideas but without a more formalised context, it’s a slightly incoherent piece of world building. Even after finishing three books, I still don’t understand exactly how Adam came to be given the drug to which he’s now addicted. If it was a part of a clinical trial run by the Guild, surely they should be supporting his efforts to stay clean? Throwing him out of the Guild rather than helping seems more a plot prerequisite than a logical development.
This time around, we have Adam and Cherabino sent to yet another murder scene. The brutality of the death is surprising and some of the skull is missing. The mindlink between this pair is still holding up and she’s able to act as his anchor in mindspace. More generally, their relationship is still mutual respect rather than acting on their obvious sexual attraction. We get the reason for this reticence later in the book and its logic is undeniable. Anyway, Adam gets a telephone call from his ex-fiancée. Kara’s uncle has been murdered inside Guild headquarters and a major political storm is brewing. She wants Adam to come in as a neutral investigator. Since he’s not aligned with any of the factions, he’s less likely to be biased and, more importantly, not know what results he might be expected to produce.
The story therefore uncomfortably balances an exploration of the new environment and a rerun of the murder in the world of the normals. There is a link between the two murders but it’s very, very indirect to the point of irrelevance. So we get two different results and everything else left to continue into a fourth book. Some aspects of the world inside the Guild are definitely a big step forward. For example, we get a better view of the way in which individual and group telepaths relate to each other. A considerable amount of etiquette and protocols are required to maintain public interfaces and have the capacity to chat with relative privacy. The ethics among telepaths is also explored given that, once people have established a line in their minds, others are expected to respect it and not intrude uninvited. Of course, their system of justice permits an involuntary reading of the accused’s mind. In such circumstances, there’s little need for a trial. Once guilt is established by the “court” appointed telepath, the only question is sentencing.
So the news about this book is both good and bad. Under the “good” heading, we have the same crisp prose and a good plot dynamic to keep us reading. The slightly noirish world of the normals and their culture feels reasonably plausible but, I remain deeply frustrated that the world building has not been set up to allow us a better understanding of both parts of the rump left after the Tech Wars were ended. This leads me into the bad side because the lack of a convincing context for the action is beginning to grate. Essentially, the world of the normals is our contemporary world. The usual stock characters populate the police department, constantly worrying about budgets and meeting targets. They are the usual overworked and underpaid peacekeepers. All the crimes they seem to investigate show very little of the future world or its technology. It’s just murder with a blunt instrument, in these cases a household iron and an axe. This is not a request for infodumps to clarify what happened. It’s a criticism of how all three books have been written. From the outset, characters could have been including odd historical comments in their conversations, or the crimes committed could have required explanation in terms of the history or current society. All we can say is there have been wars and, presumably, a lot of physical damage. Some technology is still allowed (not modern smartphones, just old landline installations). Worse, because we’re following two crimes, there’s little room for setting up an interesting mystery. In both cases, it’s obvious whodunnit. This seriously detracts from the quality of the book, and leaves me thinking Marked is quite good, but nowhere near as good as the first two.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.