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Redeye by Michael Shean

redeye_cover

Redeye by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2013) Wonderland Cycle 2 is Bobbi January’s story set some two years after the fight at the Genefex Corporation left her frightened for herself and desperately sad at the loss of Agent Thomas Cooley Walken of the American Industrial Security Bureau. She’s taken over the running of The Temple after Anton Stadil’s death and has kept a low profile. Now she shaken out of her quiet retreat by a message from a changed ex-colleague of Tom’s from the Bureau days. Then she was Arnold Kelley. Now he’s Freida Kelley. That’s the future of gender for you.

At this point, I need to give you the headline overview. We’re now more explicitly into the science fiction mode with some levels of uncertainty as to who everyone is and precisely what target(s) they should be aiming for. But none of these elements are sufficient, individually or collectively, to be classified as a mystery. In terms of narrative structure and style, therefore, we’ve rather left the first two books behind. We’re now recognizing that there’s an alien invasion underway and watching our key characters take the fight to the aliens. That said, it’s difficult to define sides in this conflict. Because the form of the invasion is transplanting alien personalities into human bodies, not all the transplants take. This has created a kind of fifth column with some “personality hybrids” supporting humanity’s cause. The problem for both sides is detecting when a transplant is failing and the extent to which the original human personality may be able to reassert control. Taking a step back, this is a very well-conceived plot, nicely picking up from the first in the series and taking us through to a delicate point of balance at the end.

Michael Shean

Michael Shean

The major problem with the first section of this book is the character of Bobbi. I don’t mind people living in a state of fear for some of the time. That’s an inevitable part of life. And given what’s she’s been through, it’s completely understandable she should feel so insecure. But, after a while, I found her heightened anxiety state rather tiresome. Again making allowances, she’s balanced herself in a difficult position. Like everyone else, she has legitimate curiosity and would like a better understanding of what’s going on. But she’s only too aware how fragile her position is. So she’s isolated herself. This is moderately responsible of her. If she’s going down in flames, she’d rather not see others going down with her. But with the loneliness comes a natural amplification of the anxiety and paranoia. She lacks objectivity because she denies herself the chance to talk with anyone else. So the arrival of Freida should share the burden and ease the fear. But that doesn’t happen. In part this is because Freida seems to have a reckless streak and engages in some highly dangerous activities without first checking with Bobbi. But once you’ve introduced yourself to paranoia, it tends to stay your friend. Trusting this person is a stretch. That’s why the steady presence behind the security of The Temple, is a better person to trust. She’s known Marcus Scalli for ten years. And lurking just out of sight (although somewhat unnervingly in earshot) is Cagliostro whose agenda is a complete unknown but his identity, later revealed, is interesting.

The first big set piece inside Data Nexus 231 is a bit of a cliché with the Wonderland mods, slowish-moving ghouls to contend with. It improves significantly from the entry into Tenleytown until they meet up with the titular Redeye who proves to be the saviour of the book producing a better balance as Bobbi gains in confidence and Redeye proves a powerful catalyst to directing the attack in what looks to be the right direction. As we go along, some of the additional historical background, particularly of the Eurowar, is quite interesting, and we get snatches of memory from the Yathi. When you put the whole thing together, it actually produces an alternate history for Earth starting in pre-Revolution France with influence slowly moving around Europe until the final beachhead is established in the US. But this is less impressive than the first two books set in this version of Earth which were both packed with a wealth of political and economic background information.

Put all this together and there’s a general lack of spark. The first two books had spiky prose and a lot of inventiveness. This is a professional job, but it spins the story out too far. It ticks the right boxes and the story moves along, but it would be better if it lost at least fifty pages. This is a shame. I had hoped Michael Shean would develop into a really interesting author for the longer term. On the evidence of Redeye, I’m less sure he’s going to convert his early promise into reliable and consistent performances. Hopefully the next book will get us back on track.

For the earlier books, see the first in the series Shadow of a Dead Star and the other book set in the same universe Bone Wires.

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

Bone Wires by Michael Shean

July 10, 2012 6 comments

Daniel Gray is the archetypically ambitious company man, his eyes focused on the bottom line, hoping to ensure his promotion by bringing in his quota of results. Brutus Carter, a veteran senior officer, is less engaged in the corporate side of the business, but that doesn’t mean he’s uninterested in his job in Homicide Solutions. Yes, it’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it? That a future society will privatise law enforcement and turn it into a business. At a stroke, this moves us away from a service ethic to protect the public and into an interstitial role located somewhere between insurance and the form of protection racket originally favoured by the criminal gangs. It’s somewhat ironic I should be reading Bone Wires by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) now because it’s predicted that private companies will be running parts of the British policing service within the decade. Just as the corporations have been moving into the provision of prison services both here and in America‚ just imagine the view you would have of your job if it depends on maximising the number of people in jail. Now consider the possibility that the same company running jails gets to investigate crime. That means we can have a production line of people brought before the courts in the hope they will be sent to the corporate jails. I’m sure outsourcing is a wonderful idea in some quarters, but applying it to critical public services seems a little dangerous. That’s why one side of Michael Shean’s vision is labelled the Pacification Division — keeping the “ordinary” population pacified can be good business.

Well, as is required in stories like this, our pair of homicide detective pull one of the more exciting deaths. A senior police administrator has been left in a back alley with his spine surgically removed. He’s carrying a wad of cash protected by a bomb to disable the unwary which suggests he was into something illegal. Put the two together and this could be the high-profile case to give young Daniel his promotion. Except when management find out their man had been selling information to the wrong people, they want the investigation kept very low profile — not quite what Daniel wanted to hear. He also surprises himself by being annoyed at the suggestion he would not want to track down the killer(s). Perhaps he might actually become a detective rather than just an employee protecting the value of his stock options. Curiously, when there’s a second killing with the spine removed, Daniel only gets a small budget to investigate. It’s like his bosses don’t want him to solve it. Fortunately, even with only a few hours available, he begins to find interesting pieces of information so that, when the third body shows up, he can see a link between the two new victims. With a search warrant in his hand, he breaks down the nominated door and finds butchery on a scale he had never considered. So, more by accident than good judgement, he gets his promotion. This should be immensely satisfying, but something doesn’t feel quite right. Worse, he’s begun a relationship with one of the witnesses from the first murder case. This is against company rules and, when Vice discover it, a blackmail situation emerges to push him in directions he might not want to go.

Michael Shean ready to try a new method of shaving

So what do we make of all this? Bone Wires is a rather cunningly constructed book. It looks as if it’s going to be science fiction with horror overtones but, when you step back, you can see the horror is more window dressing than anything. It’s just a sop to the Cerberus instincts of those readers who like a little blood and gore with their police procedurals. The real point of the story is the politics and economics of the corporation running the policing service. Because of his rather public success in exposing a serial killer, Daniel becomes a poster boy for the company, showing how Homicide Solutions really can boost the profit margins. So if his investigations were to take the wrong direction and show the company in a bad light, the stock price would fall and the corporation would find a way to cut him loose. This conflict of interest takes centre stage as Daniel has to decide whether his new-found interest in being a detective is real.

If this plot is to be credible, the detective must be given a problem to solve that, like an onion, takes him through different layers towards the central core and questions of possible commercial significance. The thing about raw onions is that, as you begin to cut into the outer layers, gaseous acids are released which produce irritation of the eyes and tears. This is a disincentive to further cutting. As I’ve mentioned, the initial presentation is of a murder with the body mutilated by the removal of the spine. When more bodies are found with their spines removed, the temptation is to assume the solution of the new murders also solves the first crime. Indeed, the corporation declares all related murders solved, closes the files and promotes the “successful” detective. But suppose the first death is actually part of a rather different scenario. When Daniel comes under pressure because of the blackmail and looks beyond the surface reality, how should he react if reopening the first murder file could mean he loses his job?

Bones Wires is set in the same Wonderland universe as Michael Shean’s first book, Shadow of a Dead Star, but apart from a couple of details on body enhancements, there’s no positive link between them. This book is also somewhat unconventional in that he’s been publishing it as weekly serial on the Curiosity Quills site. So those of you who were alert could have read this as it was being written without having to buy it. I’m all for innovation and this is pleasingly proactive on the part of the publisher. Now that it’s finished and ready to buy as a single package. . . Well, this avoids everything connected to the jaw-dropping plot twist at the end of Shadow of a Dead Star. Presumably the weirdness of all that will be explained in what’s scheduled to be his third book titled Redeye. Thus, Bone Wires is a far better worked plot and, although it leaves the door obviously open for a sequel, it does tie everything up neatly. In more general terms, I was impressed by the different way of approaching two fairly well-established tropes. Michael Shean knows how to avoid the clichés. But the prose is less interesting this time around, possibly because it was written against the clock with slightly less time for reflection. Overall, this is enjoyable and worth reading as a police procedural and political thriller set in a future world where the economics of corporate life produce interestingly different social outcomes.

For a review of the other books by Michael Shean, see Shadow of a Dead Star and its direct sequel Redeye.

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

Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean

February 11, 2012 2 comments

So this guy comes into the pub and, before you can say, “I’ll have another pint of [insert name of favourite ale],” he’s gathered a small crowd and starts to tell one of those interminable jokes. You know the kind of thing. It’s long, structured with intermediate amusing mini-climaxes which always get a smile and reinforce the listeners’ enthusiasm as they wait for the anticipated punchline, and all in the best possible taste. Too often, jokes rapidly head south and only emerge after a long period in a bedroom or wherever the protagonists are protagging each other. The guy holding forth is vaguely familiar and, as a regular barfly, you’ve been caught up in circle around him. From the out, you’re hooked. Like this story is hot even though not pornographic — a rarity indeed. You’re hanging on every word. And when it comes to the punchline, he wrecks it. He should have said, “. . .and he thought it was a disaster!” but what he actually said was, “. . .and he thought! It was a disaster.” I should have explained. I like to deconstruct jokes so I can savour the finer points of the humour. Shame really. He had us all in the palm of his hand to the very end. We all thought this was going to be the best joke in the universe. Guess the joke was on us for listening so long except I’ve added it to my repertoire. With the right punctuation and my storytelling ability, I’ll always get the laugh instead the groan.

Michael Shean with a superimposed brass flower falling from his shell-like ear

Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) is a first novel falling into the always potentially pleasing SF/mystery subgenre. By this I mean the author moves us forward in time and then has a law enforcement officer or investigator of the age, show us round the new place as he/she/it tries to decide whodunnit. In this case, sixty years has produced a slightly dystopian Seattle in a world with some improvements in technology. Body enhancements are quite common and include the usual jacking ports to allow the wetware direct interface with the hardware and wifi access to those with the right onboard equipment. Genetic manipulation has moved forward to produce a range of treatments in the pharmaceutical industry (both prescription and street) including a real way of extending life span. This starts us off nicely as our unmodified agent, Thomas Walken, is tasked with intercepting an incoming flight alleged to be carrying three Princess Dolls. This is a particularly dark and pleasing idea — the bodies of dead girls animated and sold to paedophiles. The operation looks to be routine but, on their way to headquarters for examination, a group hijacks two of the Dolls (the third is irreparably damaged). Surprisingly, these trigger-happy bandits turn up dead a few hours later. When Walken goes to talk to an informer who may actually be the importer, the nark and his enhanced bodyguards are also found dead. In other words, the trail rapidly goes cold with two Dolls missing. Then the autopsy suggests the hijackers may have been killed by the Dolls. That would certainly be an unexpected development.

So, however you want to look at this, we’re pitched into a great story with an unenhanced cop chasing down the enhanced importers of sex toys for sale at inflated prices to the perverted. Except it gets better. About a third of a way through, our fearless defender of justice is framed and has to go on the run — so there’s almost certainly corruption in the police department. Enter a hacker with a helping hand and an accommodating interface for dongles of all types. Now we have a tag team to pursue the bad buys and deprive the perverts of their toys. All this against the clock because, sooner or later, the police force will catch up with our duo as they rapidly climb to the top of the most wanted list.

Now, as is always the way when you write reviews, you reach the boundary with spoiler territory and have to decide whether to cross over the line. In this case, I’m going to stay on the “right” side. Why? Because Shadow of a Dead Star is a terrific read which everyone who enjoys science fiction merged with a noirish mystery should try. The fact my first paragraph tells you I think the reveal is deeply annoying should not put you off. This is only one jaded old man’s opinion. You may think the ending a dramatic coup to cap a book which, in all other respects, is right on the money. I leave it to you to decide.

For a review of the other books in the Wonderland universe, see the direct sequel to this book Redeye and Bone Wires.

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

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