Nil can only remember as far back as twelve years old, when the Guild became his guardian and his employer. Everything before that time was wiped clean as the group attempted to recondition Nil into exactly what they wanted: the perfect killing machine. Nil has grudgingly accepted several modifications to his physical self, like an enhanced vision system implanted in one of his eyes and bones reinforced with titanium. But recently, he’s less accepting of the job itself. Nil’s last target stirred some deep buried emotions. Now, his current target, a man who calls himself Reed, is making Nil dream of sharing a life–a real life–with someone else. Better still, Reed knows the Guild is up to no good. He also has the technology that can help him and Reed fight back. Joining forces may come easy, but the task of destroying the Guild will be very, very hard.
Morgan wants nothing more than to help her adoptive father, Arthur, cope with or cure whatever is wrong with his mind. The rest of her found family is convinced the man is driving himself mad with wild stories about an evil organization called the Pantheon and a shadowy figure called Roy Hauer. The trouble is, on a recent jaunt to Earth, Morgan finds a laptop computer ostensibly belonging to Roy. This triggers an intense reaction from Arthur and convinces Morgan to redouble her efforts at finding help. One such effort is investigating ads produced by the Pantheon that claim to help all manner of mental illness. But instead of help for her father, Morgan gets sucked into a hidden reality where an assassin who looks like he could be her twin wants to save the world…or at least save the man he’s falling in love with. Even if that man might be the mysterious Roy Hauer himself.
If you are the type of reader who is comfortable with insta-buying a book, I cannot recommend grabbing The Gemini Strand highly enough. This futuristic, post-dystopian thriller from L.J. Hasbrouck features a marvelously complex plot that pulls two seemingly dissimilar storylines into one incredibly exciting, painful, and hopeful throughline. One of the best things about Hasbrouck’s work is how clearly I felt they were laying the two storylines, providing important details about the world or the characters. There were so many great “aha!” moments for me, only to realize that even with this extra information revealed, I was no closer to truly understanding the fullness of the characters’ situations or histories than they were. Still, I had tremendous fun trying to figure things out.
The characters in this story are simply spellbinding. Nil’s story and Morgan’s story feel completely parallel, without intersection, at first. Yes, they both occupy the same colonized Mars. But Nil is a man employed by the powers that have absolute control over some aspects of Mars’ social order, whereas Morgan is simply present on the fringes of that social order. I thought it was brilliant that Nil and Morgan both independently have awareness of Roy Hauer. This point of commonality between the dissimilarity of how the reader is introduced (separately, of course) to Nil and Morgan had me guessing about what would actually cause their paths to finally cross.
I’ll admit, I was pretty convinced they were going to somehow fill out the romantic/love interest role of the book as well, given that Nil is bi and Morgan is asexual. As it turns out (and as I believe my summary makes clear), Nil actually falls for Reed. I enjoyed their intense dynamic a whole bunch. What could be more enemies-to-lovers than the assassin Nil trying (and failing) to kill his mark, Reed? These two make such a fantastic couple, romantic or not. I thought they balanced one another out incredibly well. Nil has all the skills, training, and equipment to be the best at his job. Yet he gets outsmarted and out teched by the bafflingly intelligent Reed. The attraction starts off in a sort of “why can’t I handle you the way I’ve handled all other jobs like you” way. More stunned that they’ve got a challenge in the first place. Throw in Nil’s growing disillusionment with his job and both Nil and Reed discovering they suffer from similar mental breaks (Nil calls them “blips”) and it pushes them closer together. And then, of course, the physical chemistry kicks in. The heat level is incredibly tame. The most they do is kiss, but the way Hasbrouck describes even this sweet intimacy made it feel like their hearts were connecting.
One of the big selling points of the story for me is the huge thriller-mystery surrounding how the Guild, the Pantheon, and Roy Hauer all come together. I thought it was extra fun to learn that every character seems to have at least one double or twin like counterpart in the book. We find out that some of these are cloned humans and some are “synths” (basically robots so convincingly human, you could not necessarily tell them from an organic human without equipment or seeing them bleed…red blood for organic humans, black oil for the robots). For the most part, it was always clear that even if there were two identical looking version of a principal character, it was pretty easy to know which one was the “real” one. Of course, knowing some characters have so-called mental health issues and others have blips…it all adds up to me desperately wondering how it all ties together.
In the end, Nil’s and Morgan’s threads do converge. They and the others learn that each of them are far more connected to one another than I certainly would have guessed at the start of the book. I really enjoyed getting to know these characters and loved the effort I feel Hasbrouck puts into mixing up which characters end up together. This sense of two different sides coming together also ratcheted up the tension going into the end of the book. I was thoroughly attached to all the characters and, given the incredibly powerful and dangerous opponents they faced, wondered if they would all make it out alive and…unchanged. Fans of happy endings should be satisfied, I’ll say that much.
The only reason I didn’t straight up rate this a full 5 stars is because, honestly, it did take me a minute to warm up to the story. I wasn’t immediately sold on how completely unrelated Nil’s and Morgan’s stories felt at first. Starting off with Nil’s dark and broody assassin world then flipping to Morgan’s much more wholesome, family drama world was tough. Their paths don’t cross right away, but Morgan’s world picks up steam pretty quick…and when Nil’s blips start to connect to Morgan’s lived experiences, things really picked up for me. Overall, I recommend this to anyone who likes exciting stories, especially suspense-turned-thriller ones, stories featuring found families, themes of finding/becoming your true self, and of redemption, with a little side of true love.