I came across this book in an interesting way. Responded to a tweet that Pierce Brown had made, and afterward realized that he’d just been responding to another guy. The initial tweet had been something along the lines of “I don’t need to read anything from [list of golden age SF authors here] and anyone saying that I should is absolutely insane”. Afterward, it only took a little investigation to find out that this other guy just happened to have recently released his first, traditionally published novel through Gollancz. So, of course he was taking the opportunity to get on his soapbox to try and cast a little shade where he could.
Still, I thought that the introduction made for a relatively interesting case study. I mean, if the guy was able to sit down and write a killer story, then maybe he was right, and he *didn’t* need to read that older SF. Maybe he’d be perfectly fine as a science fiction author by just reading the current stuff.
So, I bought his novel. And thus, the game was afoot.
STORMBLOOD is the first in a planned trilogy called “The Common” by debut author Jeremy Szal, and it took me all of several pages to realize that this guy probably had a big ol’ crush on Richard K. Morgan. In fact, if I had to pigeon-hole this book, I’d say that it was “a decently written Richard K. Morgan book, if Richard K. Morgan was slightly more sentimental and had an strong aversion to profanity and sex”. If you’ve read Morgan before, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Vakov Fukasawa used to be a Reaper, or bio-enhanced super soldier, fighting for Harmony against an invading alien force. Harmony accomplished the transition of mere humanity into super soldier by injecting harvested alien dna into their veins and then praying that things didn’t go too horribly wrong. By-and-large, they accomplished their mission. But the war is over now, and Vakov has walked away from Harmony and the life he once knew. But the alien dna stayed with him. These days, without a steady job, he does anything he can to find something that will pay, and as the story begins, he’s been hired by a local contact to steal a coded genome from a crime lord on the hollowed-out asteroid called The Common. So he and his buddy Grim are locked, cocked, and ready to go.
Once the smash-and-grab is out of the way, the main storyline starts in, and it’s essentially a tweaked version of “Gone in Sixty Seconds” on an asteroid. Vak’s younger brother is caught up with some bad guys, and Vak tries to get him out of it. Important differences here are that Vak is amped-up on alien dna, the bad guys are dealing drugs that might be killing retired Reapers, and that Vak is actually working with the police instead of being at odds with them. The chapters bounce back-and-forth between this story, and what amounts to a bunch of flashbacks about Vak’s time as a soldier. And there’s a girl. But of course there’s a beautiful girl.
This book is especially well-written for a debut novel. Definitely on the upper end of what I’ve come across. When I say that it’s well-written, I mean that it’s easy to get lost in the words, and not that his writing is beautiful. Like Morgan, Szal’s writing is descriptive, action-oriented, and doesn’t waste time getting to the point. I still wouldn’t say that he writes as well as Morgan. Even if you go back to Altered Carbon, the writing there is better than this. Still, this is pretty good. Made it easy for me to enjoy the parts of the story that I did.
On the whole, I don’t know that the setting felt significantly different than it would have if the story had been set on a planet in the middle of a large city instead of hurtling through the depths of space on an asteroid. Chiefly, the vertical aspect to the levels of The Common was the detail that gave the setting some veracity. Although, the fact that there was a “top” level and “bottom” level to the structures within the asteroid, and that both of those levels were close to the shell of the asteroid, made me question more than once why everyone wasn’t walking around with grav-boots on or something. The setting we do get is dark and gritty. The civilization is violent and strongly structured to cater toward those with lots of money. Several species of alien are sprinkled throughout the population. Some that seem to be human-like, and others that are definitely not. There’s also lots of tech and gadgets, if you’re into that thing. Personally, I like seeing that stuff, but it’s really all window-dressing.
Despite the well-defined plot, the good writing, and the fast pacing, I still ended up have a fairly difficult time of enjoying the story because of a few detrimental pieces. First was the fact that the story didn’t revolve around anything speculative. “Gone in Sixty Seconds”, yeah? Take out all the science fiction, and does this story still happen? Absolutely. Also, the focus of the fight that the main character is constantly going through with his alien dna got old. He’s constantly fighting to not go all violent on people, and every time he’s up against it, he wins. Having a constant fight means he should probably lose once in a while. Otherwise, it’s a one-sided argument, and that gets old, which this did. In those times that he does end up making dumb decisions (like going into a bad situation on his own), the bad guys always play around with him, rather than putting a bullet in his head. They never had any motivation to not kill Vak, and so I never understood why they didn’t. And last, (because I don’t want to keep going), the military chapters really don’t accomplish anything. It’s war, and shooting, and violence, and so very little comes of it all, which got boring for me.
Science fiction written in the style of Richard K. Morgan, if he was a bit more sentimental and had an aversion to profanity and sex
In the end, this is a decent debut novel that just didn’t do anything of significance for me. The aspects that were good got offset by those that pulled it back down. So the answer to my original query? Is this guy doing “just fine” by not reading any of that old stuff?
I’d say that there’s definitely room for some doubt.
- Recommended Age: 15+ for violence
- Language: Very mild
- Violence: Quite a few deaths, some up-close-and-personal. Not much gore though.
- Sex: A few mild comments