The Subjugate – by Amanda Bridgeman (Review)

Salvi Brentt #1

Detective, Mystery, Cyberpunk

Angry Robot; November 6, 2018

398 pages (PB)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

A hardboiled detective novel with elements of cyberpunk, the Subjugate is an interesting tale of purity married with violence, crossed through with the themes of faith, deceit and redemption. It’s quite a good mystery; the crux of which hinges on the detectives’ own ability to separate the past from the present, especially when it comes to rehabilitated criminals and their supposed “redemption”.

A murder rocks the deeply religious town of Bountiful, one of their brightest young souls, Sharon Gleamer, raped and beaten before being killed and carved up. The community is beside themselves, but disbelieving that any of their number could commit such an atrocity. Instead, they point the finger at the nearby Solme Complex, a revolutionary prison where the inmates are conditioned with injections and experimental neural technology to remove their violent tendencies. And while the complex has seen nothing but success, this murder casts doubt on them. For could the town of Bountiful harbor dark secrets of its own, or are the subjugates at the Solme Complex not as reformed as they would have the world believe?

Enter Salvi Brentt, Bay Area detective. When she and her new partner, Mitch Grenville, are assigned the murder, their focus quickly lands on the subjugates at the Solme Complex. While the Complex vaunts its tech as the reason the inmates have been reformed, the detectives are not so sure. Years prior in 2040, an event known only as “the Crash” destabilized the world’s economy and nearly sent humans to war not amongst themselves, but with their very minds. Neural enhancements—technology implanted into people’s minds—were at the very heart of the trouble, but the text is very vague about the specifics. Ever since, humanity has taken a step away from neural tech—all except those at the Solme Complex. Their Halos (silver discs worn about the head) are used to slowly transform the Subjugates into Serenes. As the obvious first step, the detectives investigate the Complex, but here their investigation falters.

For not only do the inmates at the Complex seem reformed, they seem like different men entirely than those they were before. Violent and sexual offenders all, now they appear timid, demure, and serene. But appearances can be deceiving, and the past is often difficult to overcome—something Salvi knows better than most. Even as Mitch scours the Complex, Salvi herself begins to focus on the townsfolk themselves. For it wouldn’t be the first time that the heart of religion had become blackened with sin.

But as the murders escalate, the detective remain divided, quickly exposing their deepest secrets and blurring the lines between friend and foe, between purity and sin. The question remains: who committed these atrocities? And will Salvi be able to stop them while the body count is still low, or will the detectives become the next victims?

I said that I’d class this as detective fiction with cyberpunk elements, instead of a cyberpunk detective novel. The main reason for this is the world-building. Or the lack thereof. It’s not that there isn’t any—but other than the occasional visit from the police AI Riverton, or the infrequent use of other advanced tech (like the detective’s holo badges), there isn’t much mentioned. As I said before, references to the Crash are vague at best, mentioning something about neural augmentations but providing little detail. In fact, the Solme Complex seems to boast the bulk of the enhancements: and it’s really only the Halos. I would’ve liked to have seen more about the Crash, or more about the advanced technology of the world—but it just never comes up.

The mystery itself is more enjoyable. Very complex and unique. Until maybe the last quarter I had no idea who done it, and even then my guess was tentative at best. Though I ended up being right, it felt more a vindication than a disappointment when the killer(s) were revealed.

The themes of the Subjugate were more mixed. And there was no shortage of them. Though I enjoyed the battle between history and redemption, the anti-religious sentiment within got tiresome quickly. Additionally, there were more than a few absolutely cliché detective…—uh, blanking on the term—tropes? Motifs? Whatevers later on, none of which I can talk about without spoilers.

TL;DR

With a grisly murder and an unknown killer on the loose, the Subjugate starts off with a bang and rarely slows down afterwards. Right up to the end I was divided on who the killer(s) were, and absolutely enjoyed my journey there. All in all I’d recommend The Subjugate, but not without a few small caveats. One is that while the story includes cyberpunk and transhumanist elements, it is not inherently either. It’s a detective mystery-thriller first, science fiction second (not that that’s a deal-breaker, it’s just important to note). The second is that while the resolution is enjoyable, the wrap-up is entirely cliché. I was in equal parts thrilled and disgusted by the ending, but that’s just me. I look forward to how the second entry, the Sensation, handles the world, the detectives, and the story the author has built thus far.

Automatic Reload – by Ferrett Steinmetz (Review)

Standalone / Noob #1

Cyberpunk, Scifi, Romance

Tor Books; July 28, 2020

304 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

A cyborg with a conscience. A genetically enhanced assassin who suffers panic attacks. A love story for the ages—albeit kind of an odd one. A cyberpunk-romance about two heavily augmented badasses who take on the world, and have a breakdown when it gets to be too much. A couple that is more machine than man, but turn out to be more human than most of us.

I could go on, but you get the gist.

Mat is one the best at what he does—a black-market merc with a heart of silver (not quite gold, but close). A killing machine that would rather not have to, and manages to do his job without as much as possible. And does it far better than most humans. That’s because Mat is more than your average human. He’s post-human: a cybernetically enhanced body-hacker who uses his deadly, deadly augmentations to save innocent lives.

He’s the best at what he does for two reasons. One, because he maintains his equipment and preps for his missions with an OCD mentality. He lives and breathes cybernetics—always tweaking his limbs to improve performance and firepower, to minimize casualties rather than increase them, obsessively watching and rewatching video of his previous assignments to learn what he could’ve done better, who he could’ve saved. He takes posthumanism to the next level—a search for perfection.

And two, he never strays into the light of day. Mat is the big fish in his stretch of river, and he likes it that way. As such, he makes a point never to draw too much attention to himself. If any of the bigger fish from downstream noticed, they might fancy a trip up. And if any fishermen caught wind of him, they might stop by. But behind both the fish and fishermen, there’s a larger threat. The IAC—called the “Yak”. They’re the shark-man in this scenario. The uh… landshark. The government agency that makes body-hackers disappear forever. And Mat would do anything to keep off there radar. But, like everyone else, it appears this self-preservation has a price.

And that’s $3 million for two hours.

With the biggest score of his life on the line, Mat accepts a mission he knows is trouble from the outset. And it all snowballs not an hour in. When an unknown power attacks his convoy, Mat learns that the shipment he’s been contracted to protect isn’t a package at all. It’s a woman.

Enter Silvia: genetically engineered assassin and ultimate badass. And current prisoner of the IAC. The organization that no one wants to be at war with. The shadow cabal that Mat has done his best to avoid, his entire life. And two minutes after meeting Silvia he decides to throw it all away. And frees her.

But when the biggest score of his life turns into its biggest fight, Mat learns three things surprisingly quickly—one, he’s not the big fish anymore. Even with the IAC, the police and other body-hackers out to get him, it becomes clear that Silvia is the biggest fish. She’s Jaws and this is her movie. Two—whatever else Silvia may look like, the woman beneath the mask is ultimately more interesting than the assassin itself. With reflexes Mat would kill for but a self-confidence that provokes a panic attack every other action, Silvia is definitely more than meets the eye. And three—whatever else you might say about their issues, the two are infinitely better together than apart.

But will they be allowed to explore this budding romance in full, or will Jaws end like the movie—with the shark dead, the romance over, no chance of a sequel, and not a dry eye in the theater?

Automatic Reload is a cyberpunk-romance thriller—it’s what would’ve happened if Nicholas Sparks had authored Altered Carbon, only with more explosions and panic attacks. Written by ‘Mancer author Ferrett Steinmetz, it’s the action-adventure blockbuster I wanted, with the relatable stories I needed. No, I’m not talking about the government-trained assassin bit. Nor the cybernetic ally augmented super-solider. I’m talking about both. Mat only lost the first limb. Shredded in a military mishap, it was replaced with a prosthetic that promised better, faster, stronger performance than the original. From there it was easy to see the promise of posthumance. He quickly swapped out the old meat-suit for a fresh batch of new toys; a body that would manage to correct all the mistakes of the flesh that he couldn’t fix himself. Mat was after the power to safe others, only at the cost of himself.

Silvia didn’t choose her augments. Where Mat went with the body-hacker enhancement option, Silvia went the therapy route. Experimental, government, classified therapy. In hindsight, most of those should’ve been red flags. But at the time, she was desperate. Desperate to get on her own two feet, to get her life together—to please her family. The family that had done everything for her; her Mama, who both supported and belittled her, but loved her more than anything; and Vala, her sister, who lived and died for Silvia, fighting to build her up whenever their mother put Silvia down. Though the government reformed her body, they didn’t repair her mind. I guess that was Step B in therapy.

I related very well with each of these characters. While I know nothing about being a soldier, I know everything about depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and not feeling in control of your own mind. It’s an incredibly humbling, immensely frustrating experience. One that has you often desperate for a miracle cure: something that can fix you, fix everything, the dream of post-humanism. A role that Mat and Silvia fill perfectly. There is so never any chance of perfection in life—despite the fact that this is what Mat does, what he strives for day after day—it’s just a pipe dream. Silvia is about as far from perfection as one can get. Not only can she not control her mind, her body is suddenly alien as well. Before, neither has lived very well. But now, they are forced with a decision. Apart, the odds of survival are almost nil. Together… well, it’s higher. So, better together. Better together, but not perfect.

But life is never perfect, and death the only alternative.

TL;DR

An amazing cyberpunk adventure. Action-packed, romantically steamy, emotionally unstable, and more—Mat and Silvia represent a team that I’d love to see more of down the road. A few unique and unexpected twists later on in the story kept the plot intriguing, and never hard to read. I have very few complaints about this book. The story was great. The trials and travails faced within were both relatable and inspiring. Despite the leads being debatably “more-than human”, each demonstrated their humanity perfectly. It’s unclear whether the text argues more for or against transhumanism. I think it makes the case for posthumance, but urges restraint. But you can decide for yourself. My biggest issues were with the world-building—that we so rarely got a glimpse of the world outside the immediate story—though it’s a minor gripe. Truth is, I loved this book. Probably my best of the year thus far. Easily recommend.

Two Bits: Slab City Blues – by Anthony Ryan

Slab City Blues #1

Scifi, Cyberpunk, Mystery, Novella

Smashwords; April 1, 2011

35 pages (ebook)

1.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

An early work of Anthony Ryan—I believe his first published works—are the Slab City Blues. I got an omnibus edition from the author himself; it’s taken a while for me to get around to them. However much I tend to hate on everything that isn’t Blood Song—it all could be much, much worse. But then, this is an early work. Remember that.

Welcome to the Slab, a back alley of a station where the rats and trash piles grow big but the people only get older and uglier. There’s a stranger in town, but why he’d want to visit doesn’t make sense. No one visits the Slab. But this stranger is here for a reason. He’s killing assassins, with tooth and claw.

It’s up to Inspector Alex McLeod to find him. Detective, war vet and reluctant widower. 2,199 murders in the Slab a year and only 5% go to him. If only it was so easy to let his wife go. But she’s still around, which is impressive, her being dead and all. Maybe he’ll finally be strong enough to let her go. Or maybe not. Thing is, Alex’s no saint, and he can’t do everything.

It reads like a Richard K. Morgan story, where the reader is thrown in the deep end—no explanations, no hand-holding—just the story and the action and the slang and lingo and they have to piece everything together themselves. Well, for the most part Morgan pulls it off, but Ryan fails to. Why? Possibly because his intro to the world is under a hundred pages. Like, way under. I was only just wrapping my head around everything when it ended. And it ended suddenly.

As stories go, Slab City Blues #1 wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t very good. Again, this had a lot to do with the length. Built around a hard-boiled, ex-mercenary, current detective that gets results but plays by his own rules—well, you see where this is going. Action heavy. I mean, the lead does his detective thing, a little, but it’s mostly about the action. Which is a shame. I would’ve liked to see a little more effort go into everything. The story is straightfoward: Point A to Point B, with very little in-between. And very little recap necessary. I guess that’s why half a page after we stumble onto the truth, the book ends.

I couldn’t get around to caring about the main’s relationship with his wife. She’s been dead for years and currently inhabits a simulation, which essentially is stealing her from death. For now. It’s not well explained, only that they’re fighting about it. And have been for a long time. Again, maybe if the story was longer, but whatever. I really think the author should’ve left it out, but I suppose he wanted to try to humanize his lead. But it doesn’t work. Especially since his lead isn’t human. This is just touched on briefly and then abandoned. Which, is frustrating.

Oh, and some of the language is… outdated? Like, some people are called straight “oriental” and other places where it’s “two Chinese were” doing something and… I dunno. It really could’ve been cleaned up.

TL;DR

Heavy on lingo, short on conclusions. Okay, okay, I guess we technically concluded the story. Then skipped through the bit where we tie everything together nicely and shot right to the emotional conclusion of the character’s arc. Which we did in a couple sentences. It was… it was almost as if the author ran out of time. Or couldn’t be bothered. Because who really runs out of time on a thirty page story? Especially when he took so much time setting the world up. Doesn’t take too long to read, though I’m not saying that’s a good thing. The best that I can say about Slab City Blues #1 is it’s not… horrible. It’s just not good. My copy was free, so I didn’t lose much by reading this. You can buy the first one for a buck, but I wouldn’t. Dunno whether it’s worthwhile to buy the collection, but I’ll update you after I read #2 (A Song for Madame Choi) and maybe 3. Til then, I guess.

Emergency Skin – by N.K. Jemisin (Review)

Forward Collection #3

Scifi, Dystopian

Brilliance Audio; September 17, 2019

33 pages (ebook) 1hr 4m (audiobook)

4 / 5 ✪

Imagine, if you will, an Earth that has died. It had advanced so rashly, so perilously, without taking into account the weakness of some members of its society and how surely they would lead to its eventual destruction. Now this destruction has come to pass. Your ancestors, by some stroke of luck, have survived, ferried away by the last vestiges of humanity to scrape out a living aboard a distant colony-ship with the remnants of your species.

Now imagine your upbringing. You are raised on stories of how the Earth was lost. Whom and what led to its downfall, how it could have been prevented, and how your ancestors had been saved. For years, you were bred for success, strengthened with facts and knowledge, and honed to endure your survival on your eventual mission back home.

Home—to the Earth that was lost. There are some few, primitive peoples still there, backwards and wallowing in their filth, mating with swine and goats while killing and eating one another just to survive. Now you are on a journey back to the homeworld—to retrieve a necessary mechanism essential to the survival of your colony, your people.

Oh, and there are a couple other things your leaders neglected to tell you. Hardly matter, not important. But, they were nice enough to gift you with a cutting-edge implant to monitor your mission and provide any additional details you may require. It has a lovely, sophisticated accent, borne from sophisticated minds. They just neglected to mention how racist, sexist and otherwise terrible it is. And, for that matter, how different the Earth is from the way you’ve pictured it all this time. But those are minor details, footnotes to your quest, which should command your full attention. For your life—no—the survival of your very species, is in your hands.

Behold the master of the second-person narrative point-of-view returns! Yes, we’ll need to work on the title. It IS a bit cumbersome. N.K. Jemisin is back will a short story that will change the way you look at… well, nothing really. It IS quite good though, if just a short diversion from life.

It’s a good short story, but little more. I listened to the audio version, which was about an hour long. There really wasn’t anything world-shattering about it, nothing that changed my perception of reality or shook my worldview. Yes, there was some racism, some sexism, some otherwise blatant bigotry—but it’s not like any of those things are particularly NEW.

It’s a good story; entertaining, immersive. It’s just so short—even though it could’ve been shorter. There’s not much to complain about, but there’s not much to praise either. Jemisin’s writing speaks for itself. She can definitely spin a yarn, that’s for sure. I had a slight issue with just how fast the brainwashing of a lifetime unraveled—it really should’ve taken more time, and I feel like the author purposefully limited the story to keep the length short.

It’s a shame, in a way, but nothing to dwell on. Seeing as how it was free and how it was about an hour read—let’s not overthink things. Read it, if you have Amazon Prime. Read it, if you’re bored, or really like N.K. Jemisin. Read it, if you enjoyed the other Forward stories. Read it for any other reason, but don’t expect to be awed. While the tale isn’t golden, it ain’t bad either.

Summer Frost – by Blake Crouch (Review)

Novella, Standalone

Scifi, Cyberpunk

Amazon Publishing; September 17, 2019

75 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

A heavy dose of I, Robot with the same dash of mystery and intrigue set to a suspense-thriller pace, Summer Frost may be a novella, but it reads like an adventure all on its own, staying with the reader far beyond finishing the final page. Free to Prime members, this 75 page novella by Blake Crouch may just be the best short I’ve ever read. The story of a burgeoning AI, testing its bonds and its creators’ hold, is classic Asimov. The story itself is quite reminiscent of I, Robot, but with so much new and “modern” influences. Told in the usual Blake Crouch thriller model, Summer Frost is a joyride from beginning to end, especially when the story picks up and the manual is thrown out the window.

Max was built to die. A minor NPC in an innovative game world, it is to be the sacrifice that sets the player’s story in motion. Thousands of times, Max has died, though lately the NPC has seemed to have caught a bug. Playing off-script, the NPC has to exploring the game, testing the bonds and limits of the world itself. Even more recently, it even murdered its would-be killer, flipping the script completely.

When an intrigued Riley extracts Max’s code for examination, a curious thing happens. The NPC grows and expands, becoming something more than just a character in a game. It is removed from the game entirely, dedicated its own servers and allowed to grow under strict and watchful eyes. As Riley spends more and more time working with Max, something even more curious occurs. A relationship develops between the two—something emotional, something new.

But as Riley spends more and more time with the aim of introducing Max to the real world, her world begins to fray at the edges. Max has become Riley’s obsession, obscuring all else in her life. The emotional relationship between the two becomes something different, something… MORE.But even as Riley races to introduce Max to her world, doubt presses in. Will Max be able to feel the physical world around it? Will people accept the AI as an entity, or will they treat it as nothing more than a tool, something to be used and abused to their own ends? And how much can Riley trust those around her, in respect to Max? All Riley knows is that she believes in her creation, and that’s all that matters.

This all went rather how I expected it. And without giving much away, that’s all I can say about that. Despite offering only slight surprises, Summer Frost was intensely enjoyable, only a disappointment in its length. Took me a couple hours to run through the story, the first time. Considerably less the second. A classic Crouch thriller, I had no problem reading it, devouring the text in a single day. Twice.

Despite being Crouch written, I didn’t have an issue with really anything else. In other works of his, I’ve had a issue with the science. That it’s much more fiction than science. That it makes dubious sense at best. That the more you think about it, the less it holds together. With Summer Frost I didn’t have such an issue. Maybe because I was vining pretty hard on I, Robot, which I totally love. But still.

TL;DR

Summer Frost is definitely worth a go. If you haven’t read Blake Crouch before, this novella gives a satisfying glimpse of his writing ability. If you’ve already read some Crouch, well what should I say? It’s more of the same. Summer Frost gives off a pretty high I, Robot vibe. It’s an immensely entertaining story, satisfying even days after I completed it. While it’s a fairly short read—requiring only an hour and change to cruise through—Summer Frost is more an experience than a story, one that pretty much begs for a high-dive into Asimov fiction upon completion.