Red Cells - DarkFuse

As an ex-military private detective, Jeremy Stake is used to strange missions, but he's about to embark on one of his most peculiar jobs yet.  Stake has a mild form of Caro turbida, a mutation that gives him the ability to shift his form to mimic any human.  He has been hired to act as a doppelganger for a felon who wants to skip out on his sixth-month jail sentence in the Trans-Paxton Penitentiary, a high-security prison locked away in a pocket dimension outside a major city.  However, he soon discovers that the standard risks of jail life--boredom, bad food, and navigating life amongst the gangs that control the majority of the prison--are the least of his worries.  Someone--or something--is systematically murdering the inmates, causing them to explode into a welter of blood and particles.  If Stake can't figure out what's behind it, he may very well be next.

 

Red Cells is a fast, fluffy read.  I finished it in a little under an hour, and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.  I'm a sucker for anything vaguely hardboiled, and Thomas is definitely working off those tropes, but his story also includes all the added fun that comes with a soft-scifi backdrop. In Stake's world, "muties" (mutants) and various humanoid alien species are common, half the prison staff are robotic, and bizarre pale ghostlike creatures haunt the transdimensional space. However, while I greatly enjoyed the exuberant scifi scenery, I felt that the story could benefit with another round of revisions.  Don't get me wrong--it's competently written and doesn't suffer from typos or grammatical errors. The stylistic weaknesses were more a tendency towards Tell-Not-Show and Instant Paraphrase. I also think the plot could do with a little more cohesion and the characters a bit more dimensionality. To me, Red Cells seems slightly uncomfortable as a novella; while the structure is that of a short story, it lacks the short story's fast punch and tight plot, but the character development and complexity one expects from a novel is also absent.

 

All the same, I felt that Thomas made good use of the hardboiled tropes, including a few chuckle-worthy classics; for example:

"I'd like to talk to them, if I can think of an excuse to go to the infirmary."

Null nodded, then turned to Billings. "Break his nose."

I liked the infiltration/doppelganger angle, but the "random sacrifice" thing didn't make sense to me from either angle.  Cirvik and Dr Zaleski don't really make sense, as there is no way that the beings could be fobbed off for any long period of time, and when the "deal" was eventually discovered, there would be hell to pay.  The "single sacrifice" from the interstitial lifeforms doesn't make sense to me either; the creatures have the ability to kill everyone, but even when they are thwarted and get angry, they limit themselves.  Why would a single death either relieve pressure or sit comfortably with such apparently moral creatures?  It seemed weak to me.  While this wasn't a major issue in a fluffy, fast-paced plot, I think a little more work into motivations would have vastly improved the story.

 

The same is true of the characters.  While everyone keeps referring to Stake's background, it seemed tacked-on rather than a part of him, a part of his life that informed his outlook and actions. Part of the problem might have been the fact that the novella is part of a series, and this is the first I've read. While I liked the added complexity of Cirvik's minority status as part of his motivations, the rest of the cast was a little lacking. The other characters felt like rough sketches rather than finished pieces; I would have liked to see more from Billings, Null, and Hurley, and antagonists such as the Tin Town Maniacs seemed somewhat extraneous.  Ed Fetch seemed to me to be a bottomfeeder, yet somehow he managed to get them to act as his lackeys?  The plot also didn't manage to weave these two threads together, something I've come to rather expect during my jaunts into hardboiled.  Plus, Stake kills them just like that? Why not wound them? Way to lose my sympathies, Stake.

(show spoiler)

 

Overall, I enjoyed Red Cells; Thomas is deft at building suspense, and the story's lighthearted, often amusing antics were a nice change from the darker books I have been reading. I also think the idea of a chameleon detective is both promising and entertaining. With its snarky conversations, action-packed plot, and gratuitous gore, Red Cells reminds me a bit of a TV episode: fast, silly, and fun.

 

~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, DarkFuse, in exchange for my honest review.~~