Red Noise – by John P. Murphy (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Scifi

Angry Robot; June 9, 2020 (ebook) July 14, 2020 (PB)

448 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Bebop meets Borderlands in Red Noise, where the stylized samurai western former combines with the casual and often dark humored killing of the latter to create something in between. The story definitely has a dark twist, which becomes more evident the further you read. But read further still, and you’ll find that it also has heart.

Station 35 looms out of the darkness. The Miner came to sell her ore, fill up on food, water and air, and get back to her claim. Though initially warned off docking by another trader, she has little choice but to do so when her ship runs out of fuel. And once on the station, it’s going to be hard getting off.

Throughout the text, the Miner often goes simply by her moniker. Otherwise, she is referred to as Jane or Mick, for reasons that’ll become clear when you read it. We do eventually learn her name, her real name, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Yet. Maybe not ever.

Fresh off the boat, the Miner is thrown in the deep end, as both gangs come out to woo her to their cause. She stiffs them both, preferring just to sell her ore and leave. But the station isn’t done with her just yet, and the stationmaster makes this abundantly clear. After shortchanging her on ore and tripling the price of fuel, she’s pretty much stranded.

But the Miner’s not the type to be tied down. So she hangs out with Kenshi Takata—the resident station good-guy and restaurateur (you know the one)—and the former station master turned drunk, Herrera. Where she watches, and waits.

On one side, John Feeney hunkers in the hotel. Once the gangland kingpin of Station 35, Fennel survived a coup in the aftermath of his grandson implanting a nuke in his chest. Mary, Feeney’s granddaughter remains his only family, but rarely agrees with her grandfather’s methods. His crew is the bigger of the two, but more of a rabble. On the opposite side, Angelica del Rios lounges in the casino. Once a hangout for Mr Shine—we’ll get to him—she and her brother Raj took it over after their fallout with Feeney. Though smaller than Feeney’s crew, they’re better armed, better trained. In the middle, there’s the police chief, Tom McMasters. Corrupt to the core, he has fingers in both pockets. His security personnel keep the peace—enough. An all-out gang war is bad for business, but so is a hard peace. So they keep it somewhere in the middle, while McMasters turns a profit. Down below is Mr Shine. Once and always respected, he’s been driven into the station’s underbelly with a ragtag band of dishwashers, butchers, craftsmen, and various commonfolk, of unknown strength and number.

Eventually, each gang comes to woo her in turn. And when it becomes clear her sword isn’t just for show, the competition for her services intensifies. But while working for one side may pay well enough for her to escape, it’s not ultimately satisfying. So the Miner decides to play them against one another. Now all she has to do is survive to see her plan to fruition.

———————

While it’s not a polished gem, I’d say Red Noise is a diamond in the rough. Okay, maybe not a diamond. More of an uncut… Coltan. Dull, black, but with a bit of a metallic sheen. Which I think adequately describes the book. Dark, but harboring a golden finish.

^ Coltan ^

When I was gearing up for Red Noise, I heard quite a bit about it. There was a lot of contention, mostly about the Miner herself—her femininity, her emotional depth, more. As expected, now that I’ve read it, I’ve some thoughts on the matter.

I’ve seen a fair number of reviews stating that the Miner acts like a man, or isn’t that she wasn’t “feminine” or “unique” enough to be a woman. To be perfectly honest, not only do I not agree with this, I’m not even sure what it means (seriously, “unique”?). There’s no set amount of femininity required for a woman to be a woman. Some women are more “feminine” than others. One reviewer stated that she “couldn’t tell you how many times the female ‘rubbed her chin’”. Now I was watching out for this, and I counted. Three. It happened three times. But that’s not even the important part. The thing is, who says it’s a male attribute to rub their chin. I’m a guy, and I don’t think I’ve ever rubbed my chin. I’ll scratch it occasionally when I grow out my beard, but not rub it. The Miner does scratch and rub various other parts of her body, but this can be explained away by any number of reasons. Maybe being alone for so long lowered her inhibitions about certain “etiquette”. Maybe it’s the lack of bathing. Or maybe it’s the scars. The Miner has a lot of scars. And let me tell you, scars can get itchy, especially if they’re accompanied by an unpleasant memory.

The next is the Miner’s emotional depth. She does often feel cold, emotionless, distant. But some people are just like this. Later in the story, she will open up a bit and show more sensitivity, more vulnerability, but early on she can come across a bit cold. I’m leaning towards this being the author’s intention, rather than bad writing, but I can definitely understand how this could drive some readers away. Not everyone likes a ronin with a heart of stone. Sometimes you like the lead to emote, to think, to FEEL—and that’s okay. Red Noise has this, but you have to read into it a ways, and even then it’s more subtle than many other texts. Screwball—your secondary lead—for his part, is more emotional and sensitive, though he more often comes across as whiny, at least early on.

I’m not sure exactly what to say about the novel’s characters. There’s a main cast, and then everyone else. Some of them have names in the way that disposable characters do—but little in the way of backstories. The main cast is much better. They have more depth, more history, more development—just don’t expect them to exhibit it all up front. Like everything else in Red Noise, you have to dig in for it. Now it’s good that this book had a legitimate, dedicated cast, but their depth gave them away. It’s like this: there’re a bunch of people walking around, some we come to recognize, others just a name and a face—who do you think is going to die? Because it’s a bloody book—someone’s going to die. Just don’t expect any of the lifers to go early on. This isn’t GoT. Also there’s not a ton of character development, even from the lifers. Instead… I’d call it more character “progression”. It’s not a constant. They can change over time, but I wouldn’t say many of them evolve. Their motives, their demeanors might change, but there’s little enough in the way of behavior or thought. There is some, just not much.

I thoroughly enjoyed the setting. Station 35 reminds me of Blue Heaven from Outlaw Star (another anime, manga—google it), with warrens and gangs and a “strict” no-gun policy. An old, ruined military outpost where its citizens eke out their lives, however fruitless they may’ve become. Hope mired within hopelessness. It definitely has a brooding feel, like the streets of a plague-infested ruin in the dead of night. The only stretch of civilization between Stations 34 and 36, it constantly reminds you that there’s no escape—and no help coming.

The plot itself isn’t terribly inventive. It’s built on revenge, betrayal, distrust, greed, even hope. But it’s fairly simple, and a bit clichéd. The were no mysteries to solve, no conspiracies to unravel—despite how much the story tries to tell you that there are. I found it to be a straightforward tale. Yes, there are some twists and turns, a few unexpected occurrences, but nothing groundbreaking. Red Noise sets out to tell a bloody tale of greed and deceit and chaos, and does just that. It’s enjoyable, just not overly complex.

TL;DR

Red Noise is Bebop meets Borderlands—a science fiction samurai western with a bloody, but carefree finish. It’s like a chunk of uncut Coltan—mostly dull and dark, but with a slightly golden finish. It reminded me most of a 90’s anime, which made my read-through of it as enjoyable as it was nostalgic. There’s a lot of contention surrounding this book—specifically with the Miner and her mannerisms—which I’d advice are best ignored. Everyone is going to make something of it, and no one’s going to agree completely with anyone else’s interpretation. But the same can be said of anything—Red Noise just seems to bring it out more. Still, the book isn’t for everyone. It’s dark, it’s bloody, it’s chaotic. “Organized chaos”, I would call it. The Miner’s really an anti-hero, and there’s not a lot of love to go around. Those who idealize women may not like it, nor may those that like to know all their characters’ thoughts and emotions. Red Noise tells a blunt tale, but also a subtle one. On the surface there’s nothing but blood and death and deceit, yet read on and dig down and you will find a layer of gold beneath it.

2 thoughts on “Red Noise – by John P. Murphy (Review)

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