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The Memoirist by Neil Williamson

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In a future dominated by omnipresent surveillance, why are so many powerful people determined to wipe a poignant gig by a faded rock star from the annals of history? When Rhian is hired to write the memoirs of Elodie Eagles, former singer with the politically charged, electro-rock band, The HitMEBritneys, she has no idea of the dangerous path she is treading…
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Britain is one of, if not the, the most heavily surveilled place in the world; figures from 2013 suggested there was a CCTV camera for every fifteen people in the country. Add to that the way we share information about ourselves on social media and are both rewarded for it and used by marketing departments because of it, and a novella about the Panopticon society becomes incredibly timely…

The Memoirist is a near-future science fiction novel set in a society where surveillance of all, by all, at virtually all times (except where specific opt-outs have been applied) is the rule. Williamson doesn’t go into the way this society came about, instead handwaving at terrorism, safety concerns, and social media universalisation as having led to this point; he’s not particularly interested in how we get to the society he’s putting under the microscope, instead wanting to talk about how it functions when we get there. It’s an interesting thought experiment and extension of where society is now; universal surveillance and social media ranking as determining friendships and job prospects, given that people have lost jobs over social media posts, aren’t outlandish prospects, and The Memoirist isn’t optimistic about where that might go given human nature and prurience.

The reaction against this society drives much of the plot of The Memoirist; indeed, what starts as a minor theme, over the course of the novella, becomes the dominant melody. Williamson is interested in different factions’ takes on the society this creates, especially the uneven distribution of information – inevitably, government and government officials still have secrets; the richer one is, the more privacy one can afford. The Memoirist sees different people approaching how to deal with that reality in very different ways; it’s a thoughtful and intelligent meditation, and doesn’t come to any easy answers on the topic, insteead suggesting a multiplicity of futures.

That only really defines one strand of the plot, in which Rhian is drawn into a factional fight between different groups of people who have different ideals of how the pseudo-panopticon society they live in should develop. The other strand is a historical attempt to unearth the last concert by Elodie Eagles, to curate her memoir from the information about her out there; this is the strand that names The Memoirist. It’s an interesting one, and the way Williamson engages with the mutability of memory, and the preciousness and personal nature of individual recollection of even group experiences and of the ephemerality of individual memory is brilliant. However, it’s not given very much weight when compared to the other strand, and the way Williamson ties it into the broader societal topics of the novella seem overdone and unnecessary; rather than being neat, they make The Memoirist feel a little overcontrived.

The emotional core of The Memoirist is Rhian and her relationships, and that’s where Williamson really shines. Rhian is a brilliant character, flawed and constantly curating her online presence and persona, always aware of the surveillance she’s under; her reactions feel intensely familiar to anyone who has lived under the scrutiny of online peers. Her relationships are deeply human – the strained and complicated relationship with her mother, whose reaction to the society they live in is so different; her off-the-grid sometime-lover and friend Pawel, whose connections to extralegal conspiracies drive so much of the plot; and the way she constantly sands down her spikier edges when talking to people professionally.

In the end, The Memoirist might be somewhat flawed, but it’s a fascinating novella; I want to spend more time in Rhian’s spiky company, although I wouldn’t want to live in the society she does…

Disclaimer: Neil Williamson is a personal friend and a regular host of events at my place of work.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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Shattered Minds by Laura Lam

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Ex-neuroscientist Carina struggles with a drug problem, her conscience, and urges to kill. She satisfies her cravings in dreams, fuelled by the addictive drug ‘Zeal’. Now she’s heading for self-destruction – until she has a vision of a dead girl.

Sudice Inc. damaged Carina when she worked on their sinister brain-mapping project, causing her violent compulsions. And this girl was a similar experiment. When Carina realizes the vision was planted by her old colleague Mark, desperate for help to expose the company, she knows he’s probably dead. Her only hope is to unmask her nemesis – or she’s next.

To unlock the secrets Mark hid in her mind, she’ll need a group of specialist hackers. Dax is one of them, a doctor who can help Carina fight her addictions. If she holds on to her humanity, they might even have a future together. But first she must destroy her adversary – before it changes us and our society, forever.
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Back in March, I wrote a piece about Laura Lam as a writer of queer speculative fiction; now, in June, her latest novel, again with queer elements, comes out, Shattered Minds, set in the same world as, and after the events of, False Hearts, although with a different set of characters and little direct connection between the two.

Shattered Minds is a mix of psychological thriller, corporate espionage novel, and heist story; Lam blends the three elements, which are admittedly relatively natural cohabitants, together to create an exciting and interesting plot which moves from one stage into the next very naturally. Underlying everything is the psychological element, with Carina’s extremely violent urges present throughout the book as a threat to those around her and as a kind of visceral violent shock punctuating and puncturing things like camaraderie. That’s paired with Carina’s and Roz’s flashbacks, to Roz’s work with Carina and to Carina’s childhood; both of these build to joint climaxes towards the end of the book which really punch home how much Lam has built a groundwork of violence and ethical questions together into an actually relatively pacific book. The corporate espionage blends seamlessly into the heist as Carina and the Trust work to take down Sudice, the core plot of Shattered Minds, with information an insider sent to Carina; the book follows the Trust unlocking that information and understanding it before deciding how best to use it, and the reactions of Roz and Sudice to this threat.

On the whole, the book is low key. Shattered Minds is tense, but it’s the tension of waiting for the violence, waiting for the extreme action; there are moments throughout of such action, including some which feel very much like classic cyberpunk as hacking involves virtual reality trips and interfaces, but this is largely a psychological exploration. Lam keeps the tension working well throughout the plot, making the reader want to know the answers to the mysteries she has set and seeded; each mystery links in to the rest, in a kind of complex interplay that Lam consistently excels at in her novels.

This introspective approach means Shattered Minds lives or dies by its characters, and Lam makes very sure it lives. With three viewpoint characters, it would have been easy to have them all on one side of the moral equation, or all agreeing to the same value systems; as it is, we also see Roz’s viewpoint, and Lam depicts it with an impressive level of empathy and understanding, without making her evil or heartless but instead someone who very solidly believes they are doing absolutely the right thing. Carina, meanwhile, is a fascinating character who constantly struggles with addiction, self-doubt, and homicidal ideation; Shattered Minds doesn’t shy away from the awfulness of any of this, but instead embraces it, and shows that Carina isn’t a bad person for what she thinks, but is defined, as the rest of the cast are, by what they do.

The third viewpoint character, Dax, is arguably the least morally complex; on the side that Lam expects the reader to be on throughout Shattered Minds, and with a palliative role for much of the book, he could have, in other hands, been a very simple, indeed boring, character. Instead, Shattered Minds gives us an incredibly human, and sympathetic, view of a trans man; Dax’s transness isn’t a central point of the novel but does affect his character, and Lam writes with an incredible power about it, such that a passage where he talks about having brought his body to fit his mind made me spontaneously burst into tears (the bottom of page 281 of the ARC, for reference). Dax’s presence isn’t the only queerness on the page; we also have a gay couple, a pair of secondary although still vital characters, who Lam treats with the respect and dignity she extends to every single one of the compact cast of the book.

Shattered Minds is an absolutely fantastic novel; it balances quiet and loud, action and emotion, brilliantly, and in a very different way to most thrillers and science fiction novels, to stunning effect. I don’t think it’s Laura Lam’s best work (I think that is yet to come, and is going to cement her status as a modern master) but it’s head and shoulders above most of the genres it plays with.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received from the publisher, Pan MacMillan. Laura Lam is a friend, and will be launching Shattered Minds on 22nd June at Waterstones Glasgow Argyle Street in conversation with Kirsty Logan.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Queering The Genre: Laura Lam (With Giveaway!)

Laura Lam first crossed my radar when her debut novel, Pantomime, came out in 2013; notable for being a YA novel with an intersex bisexual protagonist, I was not a fan. Since then, the publisher, Strange Chemistry, has gone under, leaving a number of horror-stories in their wake about author treatment and editorial standards; but Pan MacMillan picked up the Micah Grey trilogy and republished the first two books last year, with Masquerade, the last book, out for the first time ever this week!

SPOILERS follow for the Micah Grey trilogy

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The first two books of the trilogy (I have my copy of Masquerade, of course, but haven’t read it yet!) follow Micah Grey as he tries to escape from his noble family, first by joining a circus (in Pantomime, which also recaps his life to the point of running away, and why he did so) and then as part of a magic show (in Shadowplay, which draws on some of the themes of Pantomime and fleshes out Micah’s past). Micah is an intersex person who usually identifies as a man and uses “he/him” profiles; due to the prejudices of his society, he is in the closet, and when he comes out to some of the other key characters, there are a variety of reactions. Some are, of course, painful queerphobic rejections, which are rather distressing to read but are portrayed without much sympathy for the person rejecting Micah; but there are also reactions which are completely accepting of Micah, and those are portrayed well and beautifully. Similarly, bisexuality seems to be largely a fact of life in the circles Micah moves in; he has some internalised queerphobia from his noble upbringing, but there doesn’t seem to be any biphobia or homophobia amongst the characters we meet in his adult life.

Laura Lam has since also gone on to write some fascinating near-future science fiction, in the Pacifica series; the first of these, False Hearts, came out last year, with Shattered Minds to follow in May.

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False Hearts is one of the best books about an investigation into a crime involving a cult in a near-future setting to have come out in the last year (there were enough to say that, yes); it’s a fun fast-paced and thoughtful story that really digs into some cyberpunk ideas and stylings, including the use of neurohacking. But it’s mentioned here because the protagonist is queer, very openly and happily bisexual, in a society where sexuality doesn’t seem to be an axis of oppression; this is a book that is very willing to engage with a variety of sexualities and, indeed, gender identities, although that latter category is far less foregrounded. The semi-sequel (set in the same world, but with different characters), Shattered Minds, looks set to be equally exciting!

Finally, as mentioned yesterday, Laura Lam is one of the essayists included in the Nasty Women collection, which also features a variety of takes on feminism – including some explicitly about queerness!

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But now that I’ve told you about why you should be reading Laura Lam’s work, here’s a chance to win one! I have TWO copies of the new paperback edition of Pantomime to give away, anywhere in the world; see the link  below to enter! This giveaway will be open until 00:00 GMT on March 16th!

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Persona by Genevieve Valentine

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In a world where diplomacy has become celebrity, a young ambassador survives an assassination attempt and must join with an undercover paparazzo in a race to save her life, spin the story, and secure the future of her young country in this near-future political thriller from the acclaimed author of Mechanique and The Girls at Kingfisher Club.

When Suyana, Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, is secretly meeting Ethan of the United States for a date that can solidify a relationship for the struggling UARC, the last thing she expected was an assassination attempt. Daniel, a teen runaway turned paparazzi out for his big break, witnesses the first shot hit Suyana, and before he can think about it, he jumps into the fray, telling himself it’s not altruism, it’s the scoop. Now Suyana and Daniel are on the run—and if they don’t keep one step ahead, they’ll lose it all.
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Persona is one of the first titles to come out of Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint SAGA Press, and shows how high Joe Monti is aiming: Genevieve Valentine’s previous novels have been hugely, and rightly, acclaimed. Persona also shows how multi-talented Valentine is as a writer; Mechanique was post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club a Roaring Twenties fairytale retelling without any magic, and Dream Houses a claustrophobic far-future psychological study.

Persona, on the other hand, is a near-future political thriller and critique of modern celebrity culture. It’s a rather subtle novel on some levels, but in its allegorical approach Valentine is one of the more heavy-handed writers out there; alongside, say, Christopher Brookmyre’s more overtly political works (such as his Parlabane books). It takes universal surveillance, the centring of the celebrity-personality in politics (in the US, see Bush’s faux-folksy ways or the cult of Obama; in the UK, see Tony Blair or the attacks against Miliband on grounds of personal presentation), the technological war between celebrities and paparazzi, the increasing importance of SpAds, and more elements of modern politics and popular culture and wraps them up together in a fascinating near-future remodelling of how world politics could work. How we get there from here isn’t discussed in Persona, and Valentine doesn’t seem interested in the questions of either how Faces come to be or how the United Nations becomes the key political player on local, national and international levels. Rather, we’re simply told this is how it is, and indeed have to work out how the world functioned, rather than having it explained to us, and even at the close of the novel that functioning doesn’t appear to be entirely clear.

This is unfortunate, but does not make Persona as a whole fail; instead, Valentine’s novel focuses on Suyana attempting to keep herself alive, trying to work out who has put a hit on her, and turning the tables on whoever that is. If that sounds like a straightforward plot for a thriller, rather than a framework in which to examine closely various aspects of the combination of celebrity culture with politics, you would be right; Valentine’s complex setting is rather placed on the backburner as we watch Suyana try to win her way, and while flashes of it come up at times, they are elements that wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary thriller, such as the diplomat having homosexual affairs (in private, in order to not embarass her nation) or the carefully orchestrated relationships carried on in public and, indeed, in private that have no feelings behind them. Daniel’s storyline doesn’t add anything to this; Persona uses him to interrogate the motives of the paparazzi, but ends up actually largely being a little trite and glib about him, instead of complex or as interesting as one might hope.

For all that, what Persona does, it does very well. It is exciting, fast-moving, full of twists and turns some of which are obvious and others of which are rather more subtle; but Valentine’s amazingly versatile writing style fits itself, here, perfectly to the thriller mode, keeping the story moving, avoiding being bogged down in detail while still painting a very vivid portrayal, for instance, of trendy dive bars and undercover paparazzi operations. Persona keeps moving fast, letting up on occasion but only to allow a human moment or two between the fast-moving fleeing and constant reaction of our protagonists; only as the novel draws to its close does anyone become truly active rather than reactive, much as their histories, we know, are active.

Persona will disappoint anyone going in for detailed or subtle critique of society and politics, but as a near-future thriller with some socio-political commentary in it, Valentine delivers tremendous value for money.

White by Marie Darrieussecq (trans Ian Monk

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It is 2015, and the first permanent European base in Antarctica is taking shape. Edmée, the only woman on the station, works to secure radio communication with the outside world. She’s all too aware that she’s the focus of constant scrutiny – and it’s not just from the mend at the base.

A beautifully atmospheric novel of ghosts and love and memory at the end of the world, White is an outstanding achievement from an extraordinary writer.
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White is a fascinating novel about survival in a hostile, sterile environment, about closed communities, about alien landscapes… situating these all on Earth.

This makes Darrieussecq an unusual writer in an SF context; White takes place simultaneously to an attempt to establish a permanent Mars base, has conract with NASA employees engaged in that effort… and yet is barely interested in it, except as an occasional comparitor for the utterly hostile environment of the book. White is interested in the idea of a terrestrial landscape as hostile to life as that of Mars: the far, frozen South. Antarctica is, of course, famously sterile and lifeless, with conditions inimical even to extremophiles and as unchanging as the face of Mars; so the two missions running in parallel make for an interesting comparison, as Darrieussecq draws out.

The plot is relatively simple; really, it’s a love story, of Edmée, the radio technician, and Peter, the heating engineer; White has its core in these two characters, in their pasts leading them to the White Project, in their connections as disconnected souls whose links to their cultures and countries are superficial and shallow (Edmée as an immigrant, Peter as a refugee), in their attraction. This could work horrendously in some hands, and Darrieussecq is hardly entirely successful in portraying the refugee experience; but at the same time, the grounding of their physical isolation in Antarctica in an emotional isolation beforehand is carried off really well. That the rest of the cast are barely characters hardly matters; they’re as much backdrop against which the romance can play out as Antarctica itself is.

There is, however, one other character we must mention, and that is the narrator. White is a very odd book in this regard; the narrator is, or the narrators are, the collective spirits of explorers, travellers and others who have been pioneers pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. Hence Scott and Amundsen and their teams are here, as ghostly presences, not only in the narrative as figures of Antarctic discovery and tragedy, but also as spirits who take an active role in the narrative; that is, the ghostly narrators at times are Scott, are Amundsen, are their companions or their animals, or are explorers from completely different parts of the world.

This narratorial voice has a huge impact on White, inevitably; and a somewhat strange one. It means we move in and out of the specifics of the characters to a more general discussion of the Antarctic; we’re both connected to and yet also dispassionate about the events of the novel, drive them and simply observe them. It gets especially interesting at times when characters are in highly emotional states, as this seems to be when the dissociation is greatest, with strange, evocative, semi-abstract descriptions which talk around, rather than directly about, the emotional states of the principal actors. This also gives White one of the strangest sex scenes you are ever likely to read…

White is one of those strange, beautiful little books that are amazing blends of the literary and the genre; perhaps Darrieussecq at times disappears too far into some of her conceits, but they’re conceits that deserve a little disappearance!

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (trans Ken Liu)

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Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
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Liu Cixin is a phenomenon in China, but somehow, hasn’t reached the Anglosphere in translation… until now. The Three-Body Problem is Tor’s attempt to change this, with the aid of the award-winning short story writer Ken Liu in the role of translator. When a multiawardwinning author’s work is transmitted through the efforts of another, what kind of novel results?

Well, the first thing to comment on, perhaps, is the translation. Inevitably, The Three-Body Problem loses a little in translation, as all works taken from their original language do; but in this case it feels almost intentional, in a very interesting way – like Ken Liu is leaving Liu Cixin’s work as much as it was in Chinese as possible, rather than replacing idioms with English ones, reworking puns to work in English, or changing cultural references. Indeed, Ken Liu provides 42 footnotes across the course of the novel to explain translation choices and cultural references rather than simplifying or eliding them, which really keeps clear that this is a translation, rather than the smoothness of some works which attempt to wholly convert their original text into English, culturally and idiomatically.

Liu Cixin’s novel is a fascinating one, culturally, though. While being centred on Chinese culture, Chinese characters, and Chinese history, there is also a very Western sensibility to it in one particular respect; The Three-Body Problem feels like something incredibly steeped in the science fiction of the so-called Golden Age. In terms of style, of characters, of plot, Golden Age SF sensibilities pervade the novel; indeed, one of the protagonists,Ye Wenjie, feels like Asimov’s Susan Calvin in her emotionless disconnection from the human race and her base rationality. Liu Cixin also shares the problem-centric narrative of an Asimovian story; Three-Body Problem is focused very heavily on the solution to a mathematical problem and on the proper response to extraterrestrial communication.

This should make the book feel dated but somehow, through more interesting characterisation than Asimov especially ever managed, Liu Cixin keeps Three-Body Problem feeling like modern-day Golden Age SF; Wang Miao especially is a rounded character, driven by the rational problem and the desire for a solution to it but also with human feelings – panic, amusement, fear, shock, and so on. He grounds the novel in a way Ye Wenjie never could; that is, he grounds the novel with a character with whom the reader can easily empathise, rather one who seems almost totally closed off from human connection. It’s an interesting contrast to see, especially as Liu Cixin then subverts that at the close of the novel by revealing another side of Ye Wenjie, a more sentimental side, that The Three-Body Problem has largely concealed. That isn’t to say charicature doesn’t enter into The Three-Body Problem; the rogue, disrespectful police officer appears to be a cultural universal, given the character of Da Shi, who would fit right in with the protagonists of Dirty Harry, Luther and Life On Mars.

As far as plot goes, this is perhaps the strongest and also the weakest area of The Three-Body Problem. In some ways, Wang Miao’s simultaneous investigation of the Frontiers of Science, implicated in a series of suicides by scientists, and his playing of the game Three Body, are rather obviously linked and formulaic, with elements of surprise managing to shift things up but being comparatively minor, and things that seem to be intended to be reveals or twists failing to surprise. The nonlinearity of the plot fails to actually keep surprises back, although it does avoid giving too much away, but still, it seems a rather straightforward novel. On the other hand, Liu Cixin’s playing with narrative, with chronology, with stories within stories and the importance of stories all make the plot more interesting, and his approach to linking the different subplots and elements in The Three-Body Problem works really very well.

The Three-Body Problem, then, feels like a combination of the best bits of the Golden Age combined with modern sensibilities; it’s a tremendous work on the part of Liu Cixin, and an amazing achievement of Ken Liu’s translation to have captured so well the *feel* of the novel (or at least, to have seemed to have done so!)

DoI: Review based on an ARC requested from the publisher, Tor Books. The Three-Body Problem is released in North America on November 11th.

Hurricane Fever by Tobias S. Buckell

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Prudence “Roo” Jones never thought he’d have a family to look after—until suddenly he found himself taking care of his orphaned teenage nephew. Roo, a former Caribbean Intelligence operative, spends his downtime on his catamaran dodging the punishing hurricanes that are the new norm in the Caribbean. Roo enjoys the simple calm of his new life—until an unexpected package from a murdered fellow spy shows up. Suddenly Roo is thrown into the center of the biggest storm of all.

Using his wits—and some of the more violent tricks of his former trade—Roo begins to unravel the mystery that got his friend killed. When a polished and cunning woman claiming to be murdered spy’s sister appears, the two find themselves caught up in a global conspiracy with a weapon that could change the face of the world forever.

In Hurricane Fever, New York Times bestselling author Tobias Buckell (Arctic Rising, Halo: The Cole Protocol) has crafted a kinetic technothriller perfect for fans of action-packed espionage within a smartly drawn geo-political landscape. Roo is an anti–James Bond for a new generation.
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Hurricane Fever is a loose sequel to Arctic Rising, and although it spoilers the climax of the prior novel, knowledge of the events of that book aren’t remotely necessary to read this latest thriller from Buckell.

Hurricane Fever focuses on, as the blurb suggests, Roo, an ex-spy from the Caribbean Intelligence Group, who now bums around on a boat with his nephew Delroy, staying below the radar and out of trouble… until Zee, an old colleague, leaves him a voicemail asking a favour: to investigate Zee’s death. And then it gets complicated, as someone claiming to be Zee’s sister (but who very definitely isn’t, as Roo is sure Zee had no sister) comes calling, followed by hitmen who kill Delroy. And then it gets even more complicated. Buckell’s novel is in many ways a formulaic one, following the standard model of the thriller, combining big issues with personal affairs, but the way he does that, and his critique of current politics, makes this a cut above the latest John Grisham or Dan Brown. Between the deft inclusion and explanation of his near-future, post-global warming, climate-changed world and the evocation of a Caribbean both wrecked by hurricanes and made richer by its federalisation, this is a beautifully written novel, and Buckell’s light touch when it comes to exposition works fantastically.

The character work is as fantastic as the worldbuilding, as Buckell’s world is almost a character itself. Hurricane Fever has one of the most vibrant, alive casts I’ve read in a while, while also having one of the older ones – Roo is a seasoned agent, and Kit is seemingly middle aged; the majority of the cast, main and supporting, are black; and every single person is an individual, speaking to some degree in clipped pidgin-English to indicate something of their varied histories and lives. The way Buckell gives this vibrancy to his characters, keeping them human, emotion-driven, but intelligent, really works; and Roo’s reluctance to behave like James Bond while engaging in hyper-Bondish activity is a great touch that makes Hurricane Fever feel far more realistic than, say, Dan Brown’s never-reluctant heroes.

The writing is incredibly powerful, exposing us to Roo’s raw emotion, to the brutality of storms, to the calculating cruelty and madness of the villain, to the beauty and the harshness of this future Caribbean; Buckell makes surviving a tropical storm on a catamaran as exciting as storming a militarised complex, a car chase through a hurricane as vivid and real as repairing and spraying down a boat. Hurricane Fever feels more real than it has any right to, and at the same time hyperreal: the emotion, excitement, narrative drive of the novel all combine to really punch through any ennui and drag the reader through the novel.

I liked Arctic Rising when it first came out, but compared to Hurricane Fever, it’s left standing; this is a truly superb near-future technothriller, and a stunning achievement from Buckell.

DoI: This review was based on an ARC solicited from the author directly.