by William C. Dietz
I’ve been procrastinating on this review, not because I have nothing to say, but because I’m not going to particularly enjoy saying it. This book did not work for me, to the extent that if it had not been from Netgalley, I would not have finished it. So while this review is going to be negative--perhaps vehemently so--I think it’s important to explain my reasons. After all, an aspect that drives me to distraction may be a draw for another reader.
The basic plot: Cassandra “Deadeye” Lee is a member of the LAPD in the semi-post-apocalyptic country of Pacifica. In 2038, a Muslim extremist (wince) turned the bioengineered Bacillus nosilla loose upon the unbelievers. (Really? You had to go there?) B. nosilla rapidly transformed the U.S., slaying a quarter of its citizens and turning many more into bizarre mutants. In the resulting turmoil, the U.S. broke into the non-mutant countries Pacifica, Atlantica, and the Commonwealth, and the mutants established the Republic of Texas and the New Confederacy. Nowadays, people wander the streets in disposable masks to avoid exposure to the airborne bacteria that the mutants still carry, and some women wear burqas (argh) to modestly cover their mutilated forms. Detective Lee finds herself thrown into mutant politics when the daughter of a bishop of an anti-mutant religion is kidnapped, apparently to act as a “surrogate” for mutants. Forced to work with a mutant partner, she must also stop the serial killer who murdered her father--before she becomes his next victim.
The basic plot aims straight at some of my favourite themes. Police procedural in semi-post-apocalyptic LA? How could you lose?
Quite easily, as it turns out. I’m primarily a reader of detective fiction, particularly detective fiction that bleeds into other genres. I read books with great attention to detail (“the smallest point may be the most essential”), which in turn means that I am extremely sensitive to inconsistencies. And this book is loaded with them. Let’s start with the disease. I’m not going to go into the whole “single bacteria causes lots of coherent animal mashup mutations” bit, because that’s pretty standard and can be seen as artistic license. But what I really couldn’t cope with was the treatment of the disease within the book. Apparently, mutants are carriers, and while they do tend to get segregated, moving back and forth between zones is acceptable without any quarantine or even any attempts at decontamination. If it was me, everyone in or out would be drenched in antiseptic and germicides, then quarantined until they were known to be free of disease.
Even in the mutant zones, normals can apparently take off their masks to shower, brush their teeth, or sleep. Dietz airily explains that drinking water and eating food “was safe because B. nosilla was an airborne disease.” The hell? Airborne diseases are the most contagious category because they do not require contact for infection. What does Dietz think “airborne” means? Even if the bacteria spontaneously combust when they hit a surface, said surfaces aren’t safe because the disease is airborne; they’re safe because the disease is magical. Plus, how does Lee manage to drink out of a straw whilst wearing a mask, or talk without breathing air whilst not wearing one? On a more personal level, apparently sexual contact is just fine, to the point that mutant men capture normal women to have their babies. So what, the only orifices the bacteria can enter through are the nose and mouth? Then how does the baby get it from a mutant mother? As I said, perhaps I’m a pedant, but that level of inconsistency drove me nuts. I’m not even going to talk about the bit with the Muslim extremists, or the Aztec Empire, or the Native Americans (no tribe mentioned) who shoot with bows and arrows rather than guns (because that's what they do, right? Argh). My blood pressure doesn’t need it. I was reminded, inevitably, of Mitchell and Webb’s doctor drama.
While fantastic characters and writing can enliven even the most absurd worldbuilding, unfortunately, I found the prose to be jerky, with lots of awkward phrasing, incomplete sentences, and stilted dialogue. Dietz also had a tendency to rely upon informed attributes and emotions rather than trying to convey them through the conversation or the character’s body language. Because of this, I felt distanced from the characters, and their personalities remained static, superficial, and unsympathetic. The plot, too, tended to utilize rather a lot of exposition and side-notes to the reader. One of the most irritating forms of this was Dietz’s insistence upon explaining, in parentheses, what various terms meant, from “BOLO (be on the lookout)” to “TA (transit area)” to Spanish phrases such as “hijo de puta (son of a whore)” and “cara mierda (shit face)”. Personally, I feel that authors need to either trust their readers’ intelligence or work the terms’ meanings into the characters’ conversations. The parentheses are distracting, especially when they’re inserted into dialogue. I suspect the baddie using “cara mierda” didn’t helpfully translate the term in an aside, even though the parentheses are in the middle of his comment. There is a lot of action, with quite a few shootouts, and I can see the book being made into a successful TV show. However, because I didn’t care for the characters, I didn’t care about their troubles, and I had to force myself to plow onwards.
In retrospect, maybe this just wasn’t the book for me. Even beyond the Critical Research Failure aspect, most of the plot involves the protagonist chasing kidnappers who sell young girls into slavery where they’ll be impregnated by the mutant men who buy them, and that’s just not precisely my favourite plotline. Not even the attempt at a cliffhanger piqued my interest in the next book. So while I can imagine it as a TV show, and can see how it might appeal to less persnickety readers than me, this book was most definitely not my cup of tea.
**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 an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Ace, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review.~~