For Senlin, the skies have never been anything but red, the trees were always turquoise, and the sea brilliantly pink. He’s also been gifted with the ability to tell someone’s mood by squinting one eye and influence their actions by squinting the other. Life is far from perfect, but his secret talents let him eke out a living and a little “entertainment.”
Until he tries to persuade a dangerously hot man at the local bar… Instead of Senlin heading straight for the nearest mattress with his catch, he winds up being the one persuaded to follow the stranger outside where Senlin learns things aren’t quite as he thought. The man, Sicong, reveals that there are others with the same squinting abilities as Senlin…and they are dangerous.
Senlin, extremely attracted to Sicong, wants to prove he’s good enough for a man like Sicong and decides to join forces with him at the SQX—an organization of other squinters using their powers for good. After passing initial training and accomplishing a few missions, it’s clear that Senlin has found a place where he fits. Life is better than ever—he’s got a challenging job, cool wardrobe, and fighting the good fight. For all his professional success, however, he never quite seems to capture Sicong’s attention. Senlin has, however, caught the attention of Sicong’s powerful enemies—known for abducting new SQX recruits and torturing them until they change sides or die…and Senlin ends up right in the crosshairs.
The post-apocalyptic, color-inverted world is what caught my attention. I was keen to find out how the set-up played out in such a short story.
I must admit, I had pretty high standards for Senlin. He’s introduced to the reader as a young man out on the prowl, using his squinting ability to help broker small-time drug deals by identifying who is a buyer and who’s an undercover cop and going for a night cap of sex. The tone of the prose makes it crystal clear this is par for the course in Senlin’s life. Here’s an example of the questionable character trains Senlin displays upon first being introduced to the SQX headquarters with Sicong:
“I also get to learn all about being a squinter if I join?” I asked, as if it mattered to my decision. Nah, who cares what’d happen? At least I’ll have hot men to ogle, and I’m sure I’ll get them into my bed.
I’m all for getting The D, but I thought Senlin embodies out-and-out sleazy more than anything and no one calls him out on it, least of all himself. For me, this feels like a tremendous let down because we don’t see Senlin driven by a desire to reform his fuckboy ways or motivated to prove his mettle to the SQX—he’s just motivated by Sicong’s attractiveness. In fact, the two wind up together largely due to Sicong and his apparent machinations. Unfortunately, the story is only from Senlin’s perspective, so there’s no way of knowing if Sicong’s attraction mirrors Senlin’s shallow lust, or if Sicong notices some kind of transformation that takes Senlin from hornball to life partner.
On the up side, the friendship Senlin strikes up with a fellow squinter Shuli provides a modicum of context for Senlin’s feelings. He goes through all the juicy angst of “he knows I exist, I’m beneath his mere acknowledgment” feelings with her. She drops equally juicy tidbits about how Sicong behaves different around Senlin that gives him and the reader hope that we’ll end up with an OTP for whatever reason.
Moving on to the structure of the plot…I admit I feel a bit cheated on the world building in this story. The only markers that differentiate their world from ours are the switched color palette and the squinting abilities some people have. That is to say, there’s nothing wrong with the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they eat, the geopolitical situation, et cetera. The squinters provide the only sociopolitical change because they have organized into two warring factions. That said, these factions are secret and the story is presented in such an insular fashion (only through the very limited scope of Senlin’s experiences), there’s no real sense of their role in this supposedly post-apocalyptic world.
These secret warring factions are split into a “good” one and a “bad” one. The naivete Senlin shows in just accepting at face value that Sicong’s group as the “good” one rankled. It left me with bated breath to find out whether or not his really was the good faction, but there’s so little in the story to substantiate the good deeds or misdeeds of either group, they come across as an obligatory inclusion to force a climax instead of an intrinsic part of the story. In fact, the bad squinter group never really make an appearance save their leader who is needed to push the climax.
In general, I thought the characters were bothersomely flat and the first-person narrator from Senlin dry. The concepts driving the plot are clever and unusually on the surface. Unfortunately, the execution doesn’t pull the reader into the world, which I found to be largely a function of the action taking place through Senlin’s myopic perspective.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy read that’s all about the get-together and not about the world where it happens, you’d find some enjoyment in this book. However, if you were drawn by the descriptors of a post-apocalyptic world where people have mutant-like abilities, I think you’ll be disappointed.