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Marked by Alex Hughes

Marked

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.

Alex Hughes

Alex Hughes

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.

For a review of the other books in the series, see:
Clean
Sharp.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Sharp by Alex Hughes

Sharp md

Well here we go with the second in the novel series which began with Clean and now continues with Sharp by Alex Hughes A Mindspace Investigation Novel (Roc, 2013) although it seems Roc sneaked out an ebook novella called Payoff in between. The headline to this review is that this second novel is easily as good, if not better than, the first. However, if you haven’t read the first, you might find this takes a little getting into. That said, this novel avoids the bear pit waiting for new authors who start a series. Too often, we get the 1960’s pop record phenomenon. So for example, “Shake It Up, Baby” was recorded by the Top Notes and the The Isley Brothers. It then became “Twist and Shout” as recorded by the Beatles, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, The Searchers, and so on. In other words, once you hit the “winning formula” you don’t change nothing too much. The bean-counters convince the artists/authors that what worked the first time will likely work the second time (and even the third) before the buying public gets tired of hearing/reading the same thing over and over again. That’s why so many series stop after three books. There just isn’t enough development in the underlying ideas to keep the continuing work fresh and interesting. Potentially loyal fans lose faith and stop buying. The authors’ careers often never recover. Going back to earlier times, it used to be easier because most authors wrote standalones or only continued into a series when they had something interesting to say. Today the norm is for publishers to buy series and this stresses the authors’ creativity. Fortunately, Alex Hughes has managed to move us forward enough to keep everyone happy.

Alex Hughes keeps up the standard in her second novel

Alex Hughes keeps up the standard in her second novel

Adam, our damaged, level-eight, independent telepath continues to be employed full-time by this future world police department. Ostensibly he’s only employed as an interrogator but, when the call comes, he goes out into the field to evaluate crime scenes and support the detectives in their work. Because he can access the Mindspace, he can often understand the emotional context for the crimes. Unfortunately, his Abilities have been damaged and this hampers his use of telepathy and access to Mindspace. Because he’s in line for redundancy in a major cost-cutting exercise, he’s hiding the extent of his injuries. He’s also struggling with his addiction to Satin while being kept at arm’s length by Homicide Detective Isabella Cherabino who’s still angry at him for creating a link to her mind. Within the Police Department, Lieutenant Paulsen seems to be his only supporter/protector. With his increasing sense of isolation, it falls to Swartz, his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor, to keep him clean. Without this support, he would undoubtedly have relapsed and probably died on the streets.

We start off with two separate investigations. There seems to be a rash of hijackings with high-tech equipment being stolen. Then, taking him back in time, one of his students turns up murdered. This forces him to contact the Telepath Guild which, in turn, triggers an investigation. His exploits as described in the first novel have also attracted the attention of the FBI which begins an independent investigation. All this stress is not good for our weakened hero. Unfortunately, Swartz chooses this moment to have a major heart attack and may not be going to live too long. This proves the trigger for serious emotional problems for our hero but, and this represents a very nice irony, it also proves his ultimate salvation.

If there is a problem with these two books, it’s that we’ve been pitched in medias res. Of course this is not inherently problematic — book series have to start somewhere — but, so far, we’ve only seen the recovering addict side of our hero’s personality. Before the catastrophe deriving from his addiction to Satin, he seems to have led a relatively ordinary life, insofar as the life of a strong telepath can ever be considered ordinary. During this early period, he inspired what has proved the long-term loyalty, if not the love, of Kara. Subsequently he’s contrived to form an emotional bond with Cherabino which, given the present state of his personality, is somewhat surprising. I know authors don’t like prequels very much, but I think there’s a case for showing us what he was like before and explaining exactly what led to him being exposed to Satin. In this book, we’ve got a little more detail of why he’s carrying a burden of guilt but there’s still so much unexplained. Some detailed flashbacks or something freestanding would help us readers have a better sense of who this man is and why so many people think he’s worth saving.

Put all this together and Sharp proves a very enjoyable read. It’s not trying to do too much. It simply delivers a very good science fiction police procedural in an evolving context. Indeed, with different calls on his loyalties now established and new emotional vulnerabilities exposed, it’s all very nicely set up for the next in the series.

For a review of the first in the series, see Clean.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Clean by Alex Hughes

December 24, 2012 1 comment

Clean by Alex Hughes

I suppose I must classify myself as having been an addict. I grew up at a time when more or less everyone smoked so, being one of the herd, I followed. Looking back, this was less than rational. I was born an asthmatic and was plagued by a wide range of allergies. To have begun smoking was a tragic error. With breathing an increasing challenge, I then recognised the only approach to quitting is abstinence. It’s the psychology of the process. If you are serious, you give it up and never go back. If you are less than serious, you switch your dependence to something supposedly less dangerous. Why? Because perpetuating addictive behaviour means you don’t want to make a full recovery. As part of the process of getting clean from the more dangerous drugs, many in the counselling industry advocate different versions of the 12 Step Programs. Obviously you should not try to beat addiction alone so regular meetings with other addicts reinforce the commitment to stay clean. It’s helpful to know others are struggling with the same problems and holding out. This package of measures may include finding a “higher power” This is often taken to mean you should pray to God, but prayer and reading the Bible are not actually necessary so long as you develop the self-discipline to avoid relapse. Feeling you have someone stronger in your corner fighting for you helps. Why are we starting in this way?

As the title, Clean by the gender-neutral Alex Hughes A Mindspace Investigation Novel (Roc, 2012), suggests, our nameless Level 8 telepath with precognitive skills is a recovering Satin addict. As a first-person narrative, we’re therefore given a ringside seat as our “hero” struggles not to relapse (again). In the general run of genre classifications, this makes the book a dystopian, noirish, urban fantasy, thriller, science fiction police procedural story about identity and redemption (assuming he can stay clean, of course). Ah, you noticed the labelling confusion. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I despair of the publisher/retailer conspiracy to categorise books. Although I concede it’s useful to know which part of a big store to visit to find books I’m likely to want to buy, it’s not constructive to label with increasing particularity. This forces authors to write to a predetermined formula so their book fit, i.e. it stifles creativity. For what it’s worth, I approve of books like this which conflate elements into the whole as needed to build a world in which the action is to take place.

Alex Hughes with a promising first novel

Alex Hughes with a promising first novel

So we have a telepath who works for the police force. There’s a serial killer on the loose so our hero and Homicide Detective Isabella Cherabino are off on the trail. The writing style is reasonably hardboiled or noir, but we’re set in a future following Tech Wars in which sentient technology tried to take over the world. Humanity was saved by those with Abilities and there are serious consequences including the abandonment of many types of technology. This has left the survivors in a very rundown city environment in which many aspects of life are unpleasant. To relieve the pervasive dystopian gloom, there are elements of romance between our hero and the Detective. Finally, the general level of threat and the need to fight to survive allows us to consider this a thriller. Thematically, if our hero stays clean, he may be considered redeemed and this will say something important about him as a person.

As a not wholly irrelevant aside, I wonder whether a part of the author’s intention is actually Edenic. Although it would be literally absurd to consider a dystopian environment anything like the Garden of Eden, we have a man who is struggling not to eat the apple. I also note that one of the 12 Steps is establishing a relationship with a higher power. In the Biblical sense, we distinguish between two types of covenant with God. Some are unconditional, i.e. God holds to His side of the bargain no matter what we do. Others, as in the Garden of Eden, are conditional, i.e. to avoid the loss of God’s bounty, Adam and Eve had to obey the covenant about the apple. What was the penalty for breaching this covenant? Instead of being able to live free off the land, Adam and Eve would have to work hard as farmers to grow their own food. Now return to one of the unconditional covenants. If you are redeemed from sin, you are allowed into Heaven. By hard work, you earn the ultimate reward.

So the essential questions are what Satin is, how and why our hero was first exposed to it, and whether he has sufficient strength to avoid relapse. In the midst of it all, there’s a serial murder case to crack and considerable personal danger to overcome. I find Clean very interesting. Although this may sound as if I’m damning the book with faint praise, this is not intended as a negative review. One reads books for many reasons and while this may not be the best science fiction book I’ve read this year and it’s certainly not the best noir thriller I’ve read, it does have a genuine willingness to explore the city and the implications of the Tech War that proved so devastating. The interaction between the Guild responsible for those with Ability and the police is intriguing. And the underlying motivation of those involved is revealed in a distinctly pleasing way. Clean is worth reading. For the record, the second book in the series is titled Sharp is due around Spring 2013 and I shall look out for it.

For a review of the second in the series, see Sharp.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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