Rebels fight the state in a world changed by unnatural disaster in Carlos’ (Water on the Moon, 2010, etc.) sci-fi tale.
The setting of this thriller is a dystopian place called the City-State. Once upon a time, it was known as “Manhattan,” but then a disaster called “the Dry” struck the entire world. Now, the city’s most precious commodity isn’t something along the lines of oil or gold—instead, it’s water. The general populace is desperately dehydrated all the time, and water theft is a dangerous crime. The City-State is ruled over by the Doge, an absolute tyrant who’s also something of a messianic figure: he’s seemingly all-powerful and served by robed henchmen, a creepy elite, nicknamed “specters,” who undergo “covert training.” Fighting against the Doge’s oppressive rule is a ragtag group of rebels led by an irascible mercenary known as Cortez, “a man who commands and receives respect” but who isn’t what he initially seems to be. Cortez has assembled a core team of fellow mercenaries, and they’re worried about rumors of a clandestine program that the Doge is running—one that might be creating inhuman warriors known as “Clerics.” The narrative takes readers deep inside the workings of the City-State, into the Doge’s palace, even inside the all-too-real Cleric program, always with an evenhanded tone that makes it easy to sympathize with the characters. Over the course of the story, both the rebels and the City-State undergo surprise changes of leadership, and it all builds to a tense climax.
That climax is well-served by the author’s smooth, confident command of pacing and dramatics. Overall, his scenes come at a rapid-fire pace that almost never seems forced. Although his characters often veer toward one-note action-thriller clichés, they’re written with such muscular energy and directness that most readers will keep reading, regardless—especially those who enjoy the Blade Runner–style dystopian sci-fi subgenre to which it belongs. One player, in particular, stands out: a young woman named Rita, who grows to play a key role in the plot and who’s far better developed as a character than anyone else in the book. The tale’s genesis as a teleplay, though, seems only thinly papered over; readers are told how old characters appear to be, for instance, instead of how old they are, and what they seem to be doing rather than what they are doing, and so on. There are very few detailed location descriptions, on the whole, and most of the book’s action is oddly narrated from a first-person-plural perspective (“The man in the cloak removes his hood and we see his face”). One or two such moments would be fine, but the constant filmic reminders quickly grow distracting. The propulsive drive of the story—and the tightly controlled tension between the rebellion and the forces of the totalitarian state—does counterbalance these quirks, but the book would have been stronger without them.
A taut and mostly effective sci-fi thriller with two very good heroes and an engaging villain.