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David F. Bischoff: 1951-2018

Dave

If there was any one person who was responsible for my having a career as a writer it was Dave Bischoff, who passed away on March 19 in Eugene, Oregon. I met Dave through the University of Maryland Science Fiction Society and, later, meetings of WSFA, the Washington Science Fiction Association. We both wanted to write science fiction and we fell into an easy collaboration, writing stories based on one another’s ideas, all of which we eventually sold. It was Dave who contacted the editor who would go on to publish our first novel, a collaboration with the awkward title The Seeker. (I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the title we gave it. I believe the original was Seeker from the Stars, but it might already have been claimed.) Ego problems, mostly mine, got in the way of our collaboration but not of our friendship, which continued until his death.

Dave went on to become a prolific science fiction author, probably best known for the Nightworld series and the novelization of the movie War Games. After a few solo novels, I switched to nonfiction writing for young adults, which was a much more dependable market, though later Dave put me in touch with New York editor Bill McCay, who had been recently put in charge of the Hardy Boys series. I ended up writing eleven books for Bill and his successors.

In the late 80s Dave moved from Maryland, where we both lived, to Los Angeles to sell a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation, co-written by our mutual friend Dennis Bailey. It was the first spec script the series had bought that required almost no revision, allowing it to be put into production immediately to fill a gap in the show’s schedule, and it appeared in Season Three as “Tin Man.”

(Long-time Trek fan Dennis deserves serious credit for the script’s production readiness, because he knew the series as well as anybody who hadn’t actually been involved with it on a professional basis.)

Dave and Dennis wrote the first drafts of a second TNG script based on a treatment from another screenwriter and then, after a season as a writer on a low-budget syndicated series called Quest for the Dragon Star, Dave’s TV career faded away. He moved to Eugene, at one time a mecca for science fiction writers, and continued writing books.

The science fiction book market collapsed in the early 2000s. More specifically, the midlist — books that earned a small but dependable income for publishers — collapsed, and that was where Dave was positioned. He self-published for a while, then began selling manuscript coaching services to other writers.

I hadn’t seen Dave in person since the mid 90s, when he looked as good as I’ve ever seen him look, stylishly dressed and surprisingly trim. From then on we stayed in touch by phone and email. He helped me through some bad times, now long over, and for that I remain grateful.

Late in his career Dave was cajoled by a writer named Saul Garnell into reviving some of his old series and self-publishing them. My girlfriend Amy Gilbert, a graphic designer, helped them package the Amazon editions with lovely covers and professional typographic design, though most of the titles were eventually resold to small presses for re-release. You can still find them on Amazon under Dave’s name (as “David,” not “Dave”). You can also find Dave’s final novel, The Noose Club: A Novel of the O.C.L.T., from 2016.

Dave was my second oldest friend, one of only two people from my college days that I still stayed regularly in touch with. I found out about his death yesterday, when Saul contacted me about a brief obituary he found in a Eugene newspaper for a David Bischoff, age 66. By last night it was confirmed: Dave was gone. Details may or may not be forthcoming. (NOTE: Dave’s ex-wife Martha has subsequently announced Dave’s death on Facebook, saying only that it happened “suddenly,” though I assume of natural causes.)

There has been a gratifying outpouring of messages on Facebook from people who knew him, had collaborated with him or simply loved his books. Dave won’t be forgotten any time soon. If I learned any lesson from Dave it was a paradoxical one: You can do anything you want to if you put your mind to it…right up until you can’t.

These days I write mostly for websites, a transition Dave didn’t make. He dropped largely out of sight in the science fiction community and seemed to associate mostly with local friends in Eugene. I knew from his emails that he was having trouble with his health, but he was under medical care and none of the problems seemed life threatening. Until, apparently, they were.

Goodbye, Dave, and may you be remembered as someone who had more friends than you were probably able to count. However you died, I hope you went gently.

 

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ORIGINal Sin: Dan Brown’s Origin

Origin

I had promised myself that I was never going to read anything by Dan Brown, but huge posters for this book followed me all over the United Kingdom last fall as Amy and I made our way across the country by train, looming out of bookstore windows in every town except Oxford, where the main bookstore chose to highlight Allan Hollinghurst instead. (I think Oxford feels that Dan Brown is a bit beneath them. I agree with them.)

I’ll give Brown credit for one thing and one thing only. He knows how to keep a reader turning pages. He doesn’t do this by creating memorable characters, ones that you care about, or by writing in a compelling style, but by the simple trick of withholding information. From the beginning he makes it clear what that information will be about. It’s such a large, audacious and frankly ridiculous subject that he’s withholding information on that I kept reading just to see if, when it was eventually revealed, the revelation would be worth the buildup.

It wasn’t. It didn’t even come close. The whole premise seemed absurd throughout — at times, even Brown’s characters had to admit it was absurd — and at the end it turns out to have been a grand fake-out, a huge Maguffin that exists only to justify a mediocre chase thriller. (Another thing I’ll give Brown credit for is that he knows it’s important to keep putting obstacles in the path of the protagonist, even when those obstacles are rabbits that he pulls out of his threadbare but bottomless hat. It’s surprising how many authors don’t realize you need to do this, at least when you’re writing this kind of thriller.)

But at least I can say I’ve read a Dan Brown novel. It’s not much to brag about, but the next time I say something insulting about Mr. Brown, I’ll have evidence to back me up.

A Mystery Writer Is Born, More or Less: Harry Starke by Blair Howard

Harry Starke - Books 1, 2, 3 (Harry Starke - Dark, Dangerous, Driven) by [Howard, Blair]

Sometimes I read books out of sheer whimsy. It’s a good way to discover interesting novels, though not always novels that are interesting in the way the authors intended.

Last October, my girlfriend Amy and I spent three weeks traveling across the United Kingdom by train. All those long hours parked at a dining table in a non-reserved coach provided a chance to catch up on my reading and I took full advantage of it. I didn’t read the books I’d intended to — now I can’t even remember what books I’d intended to read — but when I saw an ad in my Facebook feed for a series of books that were free to read for Amazon Prime members, I grabbed one on impulse. Or, rather, I grabbed three: the first trilogy of books in the Harry Starke series by Blair Howard.

A glance at the Amazon Look Inside told me a couple of important things about both Howard and the trilogy. The first is that his books are clearly self published. This interested me because, as an editor, I frequently take books by self-published authors and pound them into readable condition. Some of these books are inept and barely readable, which gives me a chance to flex my writing and editing muscles in ways that I find enjoyable and occasionally profitable. Others are fairly well written and allow me to collaborate with authors who need help from a professional but already possess many of the skills they need to go it on their own. It’s a pleasure to work with them.

The second thing I noticed was that Blair Howard knows how to write. The first few paragraphs told me that he could put together a sharp, punchy sentence, which is a more-difficult skill than most would-be writers seem to realize. And the novel had a gripping opening sequence. I decided to download the books and see if Howard knew what to do with a book once he’d started it.

It turned out that he didn’t. Once he’d put together the premise for the first book, titled simply Harry Starke, the story began to unravel. But the premise was strong: Tough guy cop-turned-private-detective Harry Starke sees a beautiful, elegantly dressed woman arguing in a Chattanooga bar with some dodgy-looking underworld types. He spots her again outside, in the wee hours of the morning, fleeing from unknown pursuers. When the woman spots Starke’s she freezes in her tracks — and jumps off a bridge to her death.

Starke understandably wants to know why the woman killed herself. Conveniently, he turns out to have an old friend on the Chattanooga police force, a gorgeous police detective named Kate Gazzara. She agrees to help him solve the case and, oh yeah, to have dinner with him at his luxurious apartment overlooking the city. (Starke, all-around sensitive tough guy that he is, has an unexpected talent for gourmet cooking.) Starke rounds up his staff of specialized investigators and asks them to learn as much as they can about the woman’s background. Soon enough he has a pile of clues and theories.

What’s missing is a real story. Starke sleeps with the gorgeous detective, with whom he has an ongoing relationship. He discovers a connection between the dead woman and a prominent politician. He investigates the politician and surmises that he might be behind the murder.

It’s clear that Howard, talented writer that he obviously is, has yet to master the art of plotting and had no idea how to advance the story beyond its intriguing but rudimentary set-up. There are no real surprises in the pages that follow. The only genuine plot twist, which comes fairly late in the novel, turns out to have nothing to do with the plot and seems to have been added merely so that the book could have a twist. The case essentially solves itself. Most of the conflict comes from Starke beating up suspects to demonstrate what a bad-ass he is and worrying that the gorgeous detective might get tired of his wandering eye and walk back out of his life and bed. By the time the novel looks like it might become compelling, it turns out to be over.

There are two more books in the package and I may or may not plunge ahead and finish reading the trilogy. (A reviewer on Amazon suggests that it starts getting good with the third book.) Howard’s main problem is that, through the miracle of self-publishing, he’s exposed his writing to the reading public before he’s fully honed his storytelling skills. When and if he does, he may become a major contributor to the American detective novel genre. I hope he gets there, but as of this book he’s little more than a talented dilettante. Still, if you find yourself on a long train trip and have an Amazon Prime subscription, you could do worse than to download this trilogy, if only to encourage him to stick at it until he figures out what he’s doing.

EDIT: After writing this, I discovered that Howard had written an earlier series of novels about the Civil War, which explains his proficiency with the written word. This is his first venture into detective fiction, though, and it’s clear that he doesn’t fully understand the genre yet. Detective writing is trickier than it looks and this novel makes it clear that Howard hasn’t learned the tricks yet. But give him time.

Wrapping Up for Christmas

To look at this blog, you’d think I hadn’t read a book since February. That isn’t true, but it’s close enough to being true that I really have to find a convenient time warp where I can catch up on reading without having to cut back on anything else. For the record, though, I’ve read the following (excluding books that I’ve completely forgotten I read):

Revival – Stephen King

Cover for Stephen King's Revival

Electricity: Not necessarily our friend.

Stephen King works in the modern tradition of bestselling horror, which to my mind began with Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, though you could track it back further to some of Richard Matheson’s early, lower-profile novels like I Am Legend. But it was Levin’s runaway bestseller and the movie that followed that seemed to break the dam open and led directly into William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which led into…a long line of Stephen King novels that’s continued from Carrie through whatever his most recent book is. (It’s hard to keep up.) The modern horror tradition places a strong emphasis on settings that are familiar almost to the point of banality, which the author uses as a means of creating a suspension of belief so profound that you’ll buy into whatever unexpected curve ball he or she pitches out of their word processor to shatter the banality into terrifying shards, like Rosemary’s neighbors turning out to be a coven of Satan worshippers or Carrie turning out to have telekinetic powers brought on by her first menstrual period.

Revival, however, is King’s homage to the older generation of horror writers that he (and I) grew up reading from an age when we were young enough to accept outre settings that were nothing like the world we lived in. It’s specifically an homage to, and in many ways an updating of, Arthur Machen’s 1894 novella “The Great God Pan,” which is about individuals who have managed to glimpse the true nature of reality that lurks behind the shallow scrim of the mundane, a reality so different and so much more terrifying than the world they thought they lived in that it drives them mad when they discover it.

King, as is often his wont, carries the story’s setup to such verbose extremes that I began to worry that he was losing track of the horror element that Machen had been considerably more focused on. Those worries turned out to be needless. Almost every scene in Revival pays off eventually and turns out to be essential to what follows. Whether what follows is worth the wait is a matter of taste. The glimpse of the reality beyond reality at the end is indeed terrifying and I find that it’s come to haunt me even more in retrospect than it did while I was reading it. To accept it, though, it’s necessary to have your belief suspended so tautly that nothing can possibly yank it down. Thankfully, mine was up to the challenge. The novel threatens at times to become a slog, as you learn more about the relentlessly ordinary protagonist than you really want to know, but it never quite bogs down completely. Then again, I’m a long-time fan of old-time horror, so nothing was going to prevent me from getting to King’s take on it. And I’m glad I waded through the sometimes interminable exposition required to get there.

This, I should note, is one of those first-person stories where the most interesting and significant character isn’t the narrator but a secondary character who wanders in and out of the narrator’s life. (H.P. Lovecraft’s classic horror novella “The Thing on the Doorstep” is similar.) And if there’s anywhere that the book falters it’s in the believability of that character, who crawls farther out on a limb of eccentricity every time we meet him. There are moments toward the end when it feels like King is fighting to keep him just grounded enough that the reader’s acceptance of him as a real person won’t turn into a hot air balloon and float away, but it’s touch and go for a while. In the end King pulls it off, but by that time I was so thrilled to see him finally get to the story’s ultimate revelation that I was ready to believe anything King told me.

The title, incidentally, has multiple meanings, one of which is simply King’s revival of old-school horror. I’ll leave it to potential readers to discover the others. (There are at least two more.)

The Brilliance Trilogy — Marcus Sakey

Cover of Written in Fire

Book three of the Brilliance Trilogy

I reviewed the first two books of this trilogy, Brilliance and A Better World, in earlier installments of this blog. To summarize: I loved them. A lot. But I reread them in preparation for the third book, Written in Fire, and I was thrilled all over again. Sakey pulls off the whole Brilliance enterprise — the adverb is unavoidable — brilliantly.

Collectively, the series is about a civil war between genius-level mutants called brilliants and the ordinary humans who feel like they can no longer keep up with their intellectual superiors. I was impressed not only by Sakey’s believable depiction of the mutants but by the way he gives each of the three books its own slow-rising plot arc, with each one not fully starting to grip until about halfway through, at which point they become impossible to put down. He manages to sustain this through the entire three-book serial arc as well, except the peak comes in the final third, which is a hat trick that I wish other writers of trilogies (see below) could pull off as deftly.

There’s a touch of deus ex machina in the way the final novel is resolved, with Sakey setting the resolution up in advance but not in a way that’s totally believably in retrospect, letting everything hang on a moment of hubristic boasting by one of the characters that I think the character would have been savvy enough to avoid. But everything else about the third novel is so compelling that I’m more than willing to forgive this lapse. Sakey’s mutants are fascinating, but the one that stands out is the frighteningly vivid Soren, a sympathetic bad guy who sees time move 11 times more slowly than other human beings, even other mutants, do, which makes him horrifyingly dangerous, because he’s thinking 11 times more rapidly than the hero, but also isolates him from his peers in a way that leaves him open to manipulation by the book’s real villain, who orchestrates much of the apocalyptic chaos of the final scenes through the charismatic way he makes people like Soren think that he actually cares about them even while he uses them to achieve his own ends.

Sakey’s greatest strength is that he makes every character’s motivations feel genuine and in many cases sympathetic, even when what they’re motivated to do is appallingly wrongheaded. He leaves a hook at the end that could be used for a sequel, though Sakey says he has no intention of writing one. However, he’s been letting other writers play with his carefully constructed world and, though I haven’t read any of the non-Sakey spin-offs, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them don’t continue where this novel leaves off.

I’m not sure I want to revisit this world, though. Sakey does such a satisfying job of telling the story that I’m worried I might see some lesser writer mucking it up. For all intents and purposes the story has now been told and told well, and that’s how I want to remember it.

The 5th Wave Trilogy – Rick Yancey

Covers for the 5th Wave trilogy

From the sublime to the tedious.

When I reviewed the first, eponymous novel in this series I raved about it. Yancey’s characters were complex, their relationships were compelling, their moments of self-revelation felt meaningful and Yancey’s writing frequently rose to the level of unexpected poetry. When I reread it to bone up for the rest of the series the poetry was still there but the rest seemed a bit flat, probably because I remembered too many unexpected twists from my first time through. It still stands pretty well as a complete work, though, and I’m sad to report that, except for the threads Yancey leaves dangling at the end, it should have remained a standalone experience.

The Infinite Sea, the second book of the trilogy, tells two stories, each of which could have been wrapped up in a couple of chapters instead of stretched out to half the length of a novel. Much of the time Yancey seems to be padding his way toward book three just so he can do the full triple-book treatment that seems to be required now in YA fantasy and science fiction whether the stories merits it or not. As much as I enjoyed them, I blame the Hunger Games novels (or perhaps the Twilight series, which I haven’t read) for that. There are entire scenes in The Infinite Sea that feel like they’ve gone on forever even when you realize that Yancey is going to make them go on even longer and if I hadn’t been as determined to finish this trilogy as I’d been to finish Sakey’s, I probably would have put the book down partway through (virtually speaking, because it’s on my Kindle, which I’d still have to pick back up to read something else) and moved on to more promising pastures. But I figured the third novel had to be better.

And it is. The Last Star picks back up with characters from the first book who vanish for long sections of the second and starts telling a real story again, but it still feels padded with unnecessary dialog and scenes that loop back so frequently to the same repetitive arguments that I wanted to tell Yancey just to get it over with (or possibly shoot me) to put me out of my misery. He finally does — get it over with, not shoot me — and the fact that I can’t even remember how it ended probably says more about how weary of the book I was by that point than any specific criticism I could make — if I could remember enough to be critical. I do remember that the climax was designed to bring tears to my eyes, but I was too sick of the characters by then to muster even a slight layer of optical mist over whatever it was that happened to them.

The 5th Wave should have been at most a duology and I’m not sure Yancey shouldn’t just have made the first novel longer and wrapped it all up there. Still, the first novel remains worth reading, though you might want to take a pass on the sequels and imagine your own resolution. It’ll probably be better than the one Yancey supplies. Or at least briefer.

Borderline (The Arcadia Project) – Mishell Baker

The cover of Borderline

The borderline between well-written characters and well-worn premises.

This is the book I’m reading now, in bits and pieces of snatched time, mostly before I fall asleep at night. It has a fascinating beginning setting up a fascinating heroine that unfortunately leads into a well-written but overly familiar detective procedural with an interesting if not entirely original fantasy overlay that doesn’t quite lift it above the pedestrian level of detective procedurals in general. But Baker’s writing is excellent, her wit sharp and lively, and I’ll read it through to the end. It’s not giving me the sort of thrill I got out of Sakey’s frequently noirish take on mutantkind, but maybe it’s unreasonable to demand that every book hit notes quite that high.

As with King’s Revival, the title has more than one meaning, though the more interesting one is that the protagonist suffers from borderline personality disorder. This is the main element that lifts the novel above the level of standard fantasy noir, but as the book goes on her psychological diagnosis begins to seem more and more like an excuse for the sort of snarky first-person narration that detective fiction writers have been using since Raymond Chandler published The Big Sleep. The book’s depictions of Los Angeles and the film industry are quite good, though, and at this point are holding my attention more than the heroine’s mental disorder or the physical problems resulting from a suicide attempt that occurred before the novel begins. (Both of her legs are prosthetic, a detail that’s handled so believably that I wonder if author Baker has personal experience with it or is just really good at research.)

If the novel surprises me by transcending its fairly predictable underpinnings, I’ll write about it again later. Otherwise, I’ll only say that the novel is worth reading if you don’t have anything more compelling at hand or if you just like procedurals, a form of fiction I used to read by the bucketful. At some point, though, I think my bucket overflowed. Maybe yours hasn’t yet.

Funny How Time Slips Away: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Reading is like breathing — don’t do enough of it and your brain cells start to die. Not necessarily the brain cells responsible for walking, hanging up on telephone solicitors and calculating four-way tips on a restaurant bill, but the ones responsible for writing. And I do a lot of writing so it’s necessary that I read.

Dark Places

Dark Places: Don’t let the padlock fool you. There isn’t much inside.

Over the last year I’ve been remiss in my reading habits, as you can tell if you scroll down to the previous book review in this blog and note that it was posted on July 27, 2014. Not that I haven’t been reading since then. I have. I’ve been reading the beginnings of books that I never finished, click-bait articles that somehow wandered into my Facebook feed and the occasional magazine (though I’ve been falling behind in my magazine reading too, something I plan to remedy).

I also read two entire novels during the last year, which I’ve somehow never gotten around to writing about here. I plan to remedy that too, starting with this post, which is about Gillian Flynn’s novel Dark Places. Unfortunately, I don’t really remember a whole lot about Dark Places, partly because it’s been close to a year since I read it and partly because, well, it wasn’t all that memorable.

Not that it was bad. I suspect that anything by Flynn is worth reading, which is why I picked it up, having been deeply impressed by the wit, plotting and deftly deceptive characterization in Flynn’s novel Gone Girl when I read it three years ago. I read Dark Places looking for more of the same and to some extent I found it — at least Dark Places has the same acerbic, observational cleverness of Gone Girl and some of the same strong characterization, but in the matter of plot it felt like Flynn started with the spark of an idea that she never managed to kindle (no pun on my ebook reader intended) into an actual flame.

I honestly don’t remember a lot of the plot, but here’s what I can give you: Libby Day, a 30-ish woman who survived the violent massacre of her family when she was a child, has spent most of her life living on the charitable funds generated by the sympathetic stories about her that periodically grace the pages of magazines and true-crime newscasts. The charity is running out, however, and Libby, who has never worked for a living, finds herself with no marketable skills and no desire to develop the sort of likable personality that might get her either a job or a husband. It’s this desperation for funds that drives her to accept a paid invitation from a club of amateur crime solvers who enjoy revisiting particularly gruesome murder narratives and finding flaws in the original conclusions reached by the judiciary system.

Libby expects the club to consist of creeps and borderline psychos who get off on blood and gore, but they’re mostly harmless nerds who enjoy arguing about clues and courtroom testimony. The particular subgroup dedicated to the Day family massacre is largely convinced that the person eventually convicted of the crime, Libby’s older brother, is innocent — which comes as a surprise to Libby, because she’s pretty much accepted her brother’s culpability, even though he was probably the family member closest to her before the killings occurred. She never visits him in prison and is reluctant to do so even at the club’s request, until they offer her money to talk to him. Being on the verge of homelessness actually motivates Libby to discard her apathy — and, more importantly, to face up to the “dark places” in her brain that concern the crime — in ways that she hasn’t over the previous quarter of a century. The club members gradually convince her that her brother may in fact be innocent, and, um, things happen. There’s something about the brother’s former girlfriend and a lot about women with red hair, a hallmark of the Day family.

Wish I could tell you more — and I probably could have, back when I’d finished the book. Though I suspect that one of the reasons I’ve put off writing this review for so long is that I really didn’t have a lot to say about it even then. I remember finding the ending not entirely satisfactory; I felt that Flynn had thrown in one plot element too many, perhaps to throw red herrings in the reader’s path, more likely because she felt she was at least one subplot short of a novel.

Whatever, my enthusiasm for Flynn’s writing remains undimmed, but it still largely hinges on the deep impression that Gone Girl made with me. Eventually I’ll go back and read Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, and probably be even more disappointed, but as a stylist Flynn is engaging enough that even her lesser works, like this one, are worth reading.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us: A Better World by Marcus Sakey

With his Brilliance series, suspense writer Marcus Sakey is doing for adult science fiction what Suzanne Collins did for YA science fiction in the Hunger Games books and George R.R. Martin did for epic fantasy with Game of Thrones: He’s making it accessible to people who aren’t fans of those genres.

A  Better World

A Better World, A Better Book

Actually, I’m hesitant even to tell you that the Brilliance series is science fiction because you may decide not to read it on that basis alone, so try not thinking of it as science fiction. Think of it as a series of suspense novels that will have spectacular special effects when they get made into movies. The words “science fiction” create certain expectations in people’s minds, like starships and latex-faced aliens, and you won’t find any of that in Sakey’s work.

What you will find, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the Brilliance series — appropriately entitled Brilliance — is lean, muscular, intelligent prose with interesting characters and deftly executed plot twists. For those of you tired of the all-too-often bloated prose of fantasy writers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King (both of them excellent authors who just never got the message that less can sometimes be more), you’ll find Sakey’s tight plotting and no-words-wasted descriptions a refreshing change. And if you’ve read the first book in the Brilliance series, you’ll be thrilled to discover that, after a somewhat slow opening caused mostly by the addition of some new viewpoint characters, A Better World is not only as good a book as the first in the series but actually a better one. The second half of this book is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve read in recent years and Sakey sets up the third book in the series — yes, this is going to be at least a trilogy — so perfectly that I’m already wishing he’d finish it already and put it on Amazon, because I really don’t want to wait as long for it as I’ve been waiting for new books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Fortunately, not only is Sakey a less verbose writer than Martin but a faster one.

In A Better World, the protagonist is once again government agent Nick Cooper, but he’s on leave from his job with the DAR, having developed serious doubts about their mission to keep watch on so-called brilliants, super-intelligent mutants of which Cooper is one. (If you’ve read the first book, you’ll know why Cooper is having doubts.) That doesn’t mean he’s sitting on his hands, though. He’s offered a job as a presidential adviser and he takes it, because he thinks brilliants deserve a voice in the White House. So, fortunately, does the president. Alas, this makes Cooper some powerful enemies, because not everybody who works in the West Wing is exactly who they seem to be, no matter how nice they all seemed during those seven years Martin Sheen spent as the PoTUS.

Cooper also returns to the city of Tesla, high in the Colorado Rockies, a town designed especially for brilliants to live in and therefore seen as a threat to normal humans by certain political advisers who want the president to take executive action of a particularly dangerous kind. As Sakey winds the plot tighter and tighter, the story heads into Tom Clancy political thriller territory, the kind where the fate of nations hangs in balance. Though several of Sakey’s characters are human beings that the reader feels deeply about, the climactic scenes of this novel involve a spectacular situation that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.

I don’t want to go into more details about the plot because you shouldn’t be reading this review. You should be reading the book. You can buy the e-book for $5 from Amazon.com and it’s worth three times that much. Then again, you might want to wait until the third novel is out so that you can binge-read them in sequence, but I don’t have that kind of patience. Once I’d read the first book, I knew I’d read the second one the day it came out — and I did. (It’s taken me a while to review it, though. Life keeps getting in the way.) If you’ve read the first book, you should read this one as soon as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.

 

Too Smart for Their Own Good: Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

It’s only fair to say this up front: Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance reviews itself right in the title.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance — Well, yes.

Not that it’s likely to win the Man Booker Prize or whatever the top book award is these days — it’s a popular thriller, after all — but the brilliance of Brilliance is that a lot of people are unlikely to notice just how good it is because they’ll be too busy enjoying it. It’s ironic that my favorite whipping boy, Lee Child, has the novel’s cover blurb, because Brilliance is written in the kind of fast-paced, muscular prose that Child’s Jack Reacher novels reach for (sorry) but never manage to get any weight behind. Brilliance’s prose has so much weight behind it that, ironically, you won’t be able to put it down.

It’s hard to say exactly where Brilliance excels, because Marcus Sakey doesn’t wear his talent on his sleeve. It doesn’t excel in style, though the writing is strong and sufficiently subtle in both metaphor and syntax that you won’t notice it being subtle. (Shouldn’t subtlety always be subtle?) Sakey specializes in crime novels and Brilliance has the lean, stripped-down prose of a detective novel without quite being one. It doesn’t have an extraordinarily original plot. When I tell you, in a couple of paragraphs, what it’s about, you’ll mutter that you’ve heard this one before and you probably have. It doesn’t excel in characterization. The characters have just enough depth that the reader cares about them — especially the protagonist, who has the most at stake — but not enough to bog the novel down in description. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, George R.R. Martin.)

Where Brilliance excels is in structure. Sakey has an uncanny sense for the moment at which the reader’s attention is going to flag and fires off a revelation or plot twist just in time to keep his hooks in you. And, believe me, he sinks the hooks in early and deep. Sakey’s novel is so beautifully structured that the story always feels fresh, with perfect pacing and no scene held for even a beat too long — at least until the end, when the reader gets the denouement the book deserves, tying up loose ends so nicely that I was surprised to discover that this is the first book in a series. Believe me, it functions perfectly well as a standalone story.

Brilliance is what I like to call science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction, a genre I’ve come to enjoy more and more as I’ve gotten older. Here’s the plot: Brilliance takes place in an alternate version of our present, where back in the early 1980s special children called brilliants (or abnorms if you don’t like them) began to appear, mutants with unusual mental powers that manifest themselves in various and unexpected ways. By the 2010s these mutants have begun dividing up into two groups, those who live separately from the rest of the human race and those who just want to get along. And the U.S. government is starting to become disturbed by the possibility of an abnorm terrorist underground that could destroy normal society as we know it.

If you’re muttering that this sounds like a lot like the X-Men, both in comics and in movies, I’m with you. It does. And it’s to Sakey’s credit that this doesn’t feel the slightest bit like an X-Men film. Part of that is Sakey’s crime novel background, which makes this feel more like an action thriller played out on a large scale than a comic-book movie (which is not to knock comic-book movies, something I very much enjoy when they’re done well). Another thing that keeps this from feeling like the X-Men is that Sakey’s mutants don’t have what one would think of as superhero powers. None of them can fly, cause objects to burst into flame with their eyes, or shoot adamantium claws out of their fingertips (though there is a little girl who can pick up on body language cues so well that she can effectively read minds, a marvelous throwaway touch about halfway through the book). Sakey’s brilliants can do things like calculate cause and effect so rapidly that they know what’s going to happen two seconds in the future or distract your attention so deftly that they become effectively invisible. Sakey makes this all so thoroughly convincing that you never feel like like you’re reading science fiction, even when you notice the technological differences that brilliant inventors have introduced into consumer technology, like holographic televisions.

The protagonist is Agent Nick Cooper of the DAR — Department of Analysis and Response — a government agency founded to keep an eye on brilliants and given extraordinary powers by an equivalent of the Patriot Act inspired by this world’s abnorm equivalent of 9/11. The irony is that Cooper is a brilliant himself and he makes no attempt to conceal it. He’s sincere in his desire to keep the peace with normal human beings and even has two children, one normal and one brilliant, by his non-brilliant ex-wife. Cooper is searching for John Smith, a brilliant terrorist responsible for a heinous act of mass murder in the nation’s capital. But he’s also worried about his brilliant daughter, who he suspects has abnorm abilities so powerful that she’ll soon find herself under the watchful eye of the DAR, which makes him uneasy. And it’s this uneasiness that provides the subtle impetus behind much of the plot.

It’s not hard, even in the opening chapters, to see where this novel will wind up in the end. The fun is in figuring out how it will get there and Sakey is always one step ahead of you. It’s no surprise that the novel has a big reveal, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see how big it was going to be. Still, it’s the little reveals and wonderfully unexpected moments that keep this novel in almost constant motion, pulling the reader along like a monstrous wave yet rarely feeling overhurried or frenetic. Sakey tells this story so perfectly that, even though I was reading it during a period when I had neither the time nor the focus for a lot of reading, I never considered putting it down for a different book. And now I’m psyched for the next book in the series, A Better World, which Amazon says is coming out on June 17. You might want to read this book now so you’ll be ready to buy that one the day it comes out. Believe me, I’ll be buying it with you.