Jack Smith is a brilliant agent for the Bureau of Counterpsycic Affairs, or “Countermind,” and he spends his time hunting unregistered psychics. The signs of a fugitive psychic are subtle for some, but glaringly obvious with a little training. Those signs crop up time and again around a small-potatoes grifter in Hong Kong and Smith goes in to investigate.
Despite the man slipping the tranq dart and leading him on a heart-pounding foot chase, Smith ultimately encounters his target face to face. His hard work is rewarded when the target finally uses his psychic abilities against Smith, allowing the agent to process him to the full extent of the law. Except when Smith’s back-up arrives, the extra officers aren’t trained to repel the mental attacks Smith easily deflected, allowing the target to manage an escape. What unfolds is a wild goose chase across southeast Asia. The longer Smith pursues the fugitive, the more he realizes there is something special about the young man—hell, the agent has to travel halfway around the world to discover the man has a name: Alan Izaki.
Ever since his brilliant father perished in a freak accident in their Seattle home, Alan has been on the run. He knows what he is and there is no way he will allow the government agency to “recruit” him. Alan simply wants to be free to live his life and to do so not on the leash of a government agency like all the other agents. Except Agent Smith crops up at every turn. Regardless of the extreme care Alan takes to foil the man’s attempts to capture him, their paths collide again and again. With Countermind pursuing him and more and more resources being dedicated towards his capture—some even more nefarious than the head of Countermind itself—Alan’s chances of an escape grow slimmer and slimmer.
Right off the bat, to cop a phrase from the author’s tumblr, this is a “paranormal cyberpunk thriller.” I can but concur. I found myself thinking wistfully back to those early days when I first saw Ghost in the Shell (you know, back when you had to have fellow fans subtitle bootleg VHS tapes for you and you traded them from your dorm room) and being enamored of the utter cool factor that glittering, beautiful, and dystopian future offered.
For me, the strongest element of this story is how well planned and executed the various threads are. And this is a story that has several clear and distinct threads: (1) the Jack Smith and Alan Izaki agent/fugitive thread, (2) the Jack Smith and Zheng agent/commander dynamic, (3) everything about Doctor Kim Kyun-Min, (4) Huang the programmer and Arissa the ex-agent and super psychic, both dissidents but from different aspects of the same authoritarian government, and (5) runaways Jettrin, Jei, and Sian.
At times, the story seems somewhat disjointed. For example, we open with the three runaways trying to sneak away on a boat bound for another country. We don’t see them again until the middle of the book and again at the end of the book. The Smith and Arissa characters, in their capacities as agents of Countermind, end up assuming alternate personalities. In Smith’s case, however, it wasn’t clear he was working under an assumed identity until the need for that identity passed…I wouldn’t say it was a “holy shit!” moment, but it did help me (A) identify Jack Smith as a sort of wunderkind agent and (B) manage an already large cast.
To be honest, with so many characters, it took me a while to whittle down the cast of main characters to the following: Jack, Alan, Arissa, Huang, and Kim, and the secondary characters could be Zheng and Senex. What was such a pleasure to read was how the threads are strictly separated by what characters appear in them. Sometimes, Jack and Arissa are doing something, other times Kim and Jack are butting heads, Arissa and Zheng have an explosive meeting, Jack and Alan keep running into each other, and their dynamic slightly shifts each time. I really enjoyed seeing the fluidity of the characters and the mix-up of their interaction.
On the surface, this book seems like something that would be better delivered in a visual medium (hell, it still might regardless), but stick with it. The more you read, the clearer each of these character’s connections to one another (not to mention potential betrayal and retribution) become. It’s definitely worth the effort to read carefully and take pains to remember names (and aliases) of who’s who.
I also feel compelled to talk about Doctor Kim Kyung-Min! They are first introduced in an exchange with Jack Smith. The more I read the dialogue, the more I kept waiting for a tell. Our introduction to the character is via a telephone conversation between Doctor Kim and Jack Smith. The longer they discuss Jack’s hunch about Alan’s genesis, the more I was aware of the conscious eschewal of any gendered terms. I doubled checked the passage and confirmed: there were no gender normative references to the good doctor. Much later, the doctor crops up again when they are targeted by Alan as a potential ticket for him to escape Jack. Here, the reader unequivocally learns that Doctor Kim does not, apparently, observe gender norms. The best part? The whole story where Doctor Kim is involved reinforces this by using the “they/their” in reference to Kim. And extra special? The bad guy refers to Doctor Kim as she/her when speaking about Kim to another person…that just made me feels smug about the smug bad guy getting Kim’s pronouns wrong. Yes. There are psychics and an authoritarian regime to to control them, sentient computer programs, and zombies in North Korea. What do I squee over? Genderless pronouns! Of course.
On the whole, this is a wonderfully intricately story focusing on a handful of varied characters who swing into and out of each other’s orbits to dazzling effect. Each character is given a perfunctory backstory that, despite the clinical brevity, made them no less real and tangible to me. If you’re interested in an exciting cyberpunk thriller story with a stunning array of characters presented in ever shifting circumstances, this would be a great book for you.
A review copy of this book was provided by DSP Publications.