by Myke Cole
The Reawakening--the rebirth of magic in the modern world--has begun, but the world is still pushing the snooze button.
Jim Schweitzer has his feet planted in the nonmagical world. He has a nice home, a four-year-old son, and a wife whose art career is beginning to blossom. He also kills people. Professionally. But when an assignment goes terribly wrong, Schweitzer’s life takes a turn for the weird. Suddenly, he finds himself in a world where death is no longer the end and where magic is a contagion that the U.S. government is determined to stop.
In general, I’m not particularly fond of prequels. They tend to tell a story whose outlines have already been sketched in the “real” book, and most of the suspense is killed by the author’s need to paint within the lines, both in terms of plot and characters. However, Gemini Cell is definitely an exception. It takes place long before the events of Shadow Ops, Cole's other series in the same world. While Schweitzer runs into Shadow Ops magics such as Renders, Cole also introduces jinns: human spirits that can reanimate corpses and co-inhabit with the original soul. Gemini Cell takes place during the birth of the Supernatural Operations Corps, before magic is acknowledged, before the terms of “Latents” and “Probes” and “Selfers” have come into usage. But at the same time, elements of the future are present. From the government’s initial reaction to magic, the writing is on the wall. As one character explains,
“You wouldn’t let a private citizen have possession of a nuke. [...] That’s what magic is. That’s why we have to keep it under control.”
The big question of the Shadow Ops series is the balance between freedom and security, and that struggle begins in Gemini Cell.(show spoiler)
I originally became interested in Cole after reading his blog post on PTSD. This is, finally, the PTSD book. Several of the characters go through traumatic experiences that leave them hypervigilant, unable to find safety or reassurance in the world they find themselves thrown back into. There are also several beautiful descriptions of loss from characters consumed by grief:
“She’d stopped going to the gym, whiled away the hours in front of her laptop, scanning emails she couldn’t bring herself to answer, watching her social media scroll by, a flowing current of a world that kept on turning as if nothing had happened, as if her life hadn’t been suddenly snatched away from her, crumbled into a lumpen ball, and handed back with a note attached that read, FIGURE THIS OUT. GOOD LUCK!”
Characterization in Gemini Cell is much stronger than in any of the Shadow Ops books. Sarah, Schweitzer’s wife, is the most rounded and interesting female character that Cole has written thus far. At the same time, Gemini Cell kicks the graphic imagery and violence up about ten clicks. The horrific scenes were intensified by Schweitzer’s own nature. I couldn’t come to grips with the idea of a man seeing killing as a job or an art form, and found his belief that passionless professionalism somehow made his role more acceptable to be profoundly disturbing. Yet although he has the same worryingly rock-hard moral certainty as Cole’s other protagonist, Oscar Britton, I found him more likeable, even though I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to like him.(show spoiler)
Schweitzer thinks of himself as a warrior, a “paladin” whose wars are “sanctified.” Although it isn’t really explored in this book, I strongly suspect that later books will examine and challenge who is doing the sanctification, and how noble their motives really are. Schweitzer sees his cause as righteous, but he is also driven by a deep-seated desire to be special, someone his wife can admire and his son can look up to:
“When it came to killing, a man could only harden himself so much. There was something deeper that helped you pull the trigger when you had to, and to forget what the round did after. Some people had it, most didn’t.”
As Schweitzer’s world is turned on its end, even he begins to wonder about his own nature. He is a weapon, but is he merely a tool, or something more? He fixes even more firmly upon his identity as a “warrior” and an artist of death:
“It was in the killing that the SEAL distinguished himself from the enemy. Schweitzer killed with a professional’s precision, a cold calculation made holy by its service to his country’s cause. It was what made him an artist instead of a thug.”
Personally, I don’t understand why “professionalism” somehow improves the “killing” bit. How does killing efficiently make him less of a killer? A trigger man? A murderer? Schweitzer’s definitions of “right” and “wrong” are certainly not mine, but that made the book all the more interesting to read. One of the things I like about Cole is the unreliability of the third-person narrators. Even if Schweitzer is currently assured in his own righteousness, that won’t stop the rest of the series from turning his beliefs upside down. This is hinted at in one of my favourite scenes:
“Why do you call them bad guys?” she’d asked.
“Because they’re bad.” [...]
“Do you really believe that?”
“Sure. Sometimes. No. It doesn’t matter. We have to think that.”
“Why?” He felt her head shift, knew she was looking at him now.
“Because you can’t do the job if you’re thinking about their mothers, or their kids. You’ll choke up. You’ll get yourself killed. You’ll get your teammates killed.”
“I don’t believe in bad guys.”
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as evil. Some people are crazy. Others are terrified. Others are stupid or too proud to reverse what they know is a bad course. Nobody’s evil. Not in a mustache-twirling way.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter.”
“No, sweetheart. It doesn’t. The scalpel isn’t the hand that moves it. You can’t be both the hand and the blade, Sarah. That’s how you get juntas. I don’t worry about the nature of evil. There are no good guys or bad guys. There’s only alive or dead. Mission objectives accomplished or failed.”
If you're interested in trying Myke Cole and looking for a place to start, then Gemini Cell is the book for you. While it contains much more graphic violence than any other book so far, I think it also is a stronger novel than the start of the Shadow Ops series. I found Schweitzer's predicament to be especially interesting in light of the events of Shadow Ops, but I also think the book stands on its own, without any dependencies on other works.The story weaves in elements of thriller, fantasy, and even romance, and ties it together with some troubling questions about our world and our system. I can't wait to see where it goes next.
**Note: this review is of an uncorrected advanced reader copy. While the included quotes may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the nature of the novel as a whole.**
~~I received this ebook from the publisher, Penguin, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you!~~