Interesting ideas overburdened by flat characters and subplots.

PRESAGE

Cheung’s debut novel is packed with thrilling ideas about near-future technology.

When cub reporter Sophie wakes for her first day of work, she’s helped by her digital I-ssistant, and she enjoys a relaxing holographic recreation of a lagoon while interacting with a representation of her schedule projected in midair—and that’s only the first page. Other near-future pops up, from new types of transportation to new social technologies, including the Alpha Scores for rating charity and community service. The first half of the novel revolves around a discussion of the role of the market and the individual in society, as presented in a debate between digitally reproduced Karl Marx (rather, three versions of Marx) and the economist Adam Smith. However, while these high-concept ideas and philosophical debates are entertaining, Cheung doesn’t back up the ideas with clearly defined characters for the reader to identify with. Yet there are plenty of players: In addition to Sophie and her I-ssistant personality, Brad, there are also her adoptive parents, Lola and Otto; her biological mother, Xin Sun Er, and grandmother; her fiancé, Mitch; his twin brother, Sam; her colleagues, Karly and Tristan; the three Marx personalities and the Adam Smith construct; her boss and her boss’ many friends; etc. The vast array of ideas may be thrilling, but the large cast of characters can be confusing. On top of that, the narrator sometimes summarizes the situation with a bird’s-eye view, which doesn’t foster emotional identification with the characters, as in one instance when the reader is simply told: “People were shaken….But life went on, and autumn turned into winter.” Lastly, the book loses some excitement due to its structure and slow pacing; in fact, the title object—the virtual game “Presage”—first appears on page 233, finally kicking into gear a thriller plot involving intelligence agencies’ attempt to sabotage the game.

Interesting ideas overburdened by flat characters and subplots.

Pub Date: June 8, 2012

ISBN: 978-1477479988

Page Count: 380

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2012

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An unrelentingly dark and disquieting look at the way societies conform to committing atrocities.

TENDER IS THE FLESH

A processing plant manager struggles with the grim realities of a society where cannibalism is the new normal.

Marcos Tejo is the boss’s son. Once, that meant taking over his father’s meat plant when the older man began to suffer from dementia and require nursing home care. But ever since the Transition, when animals became infected with a virus fatal to humans and had to be destroyed, society has been clamoring for a new source of meat, laboring under the belief, reinforced by media and government messaging, that plant proteins would result in malnutrition and ill effects. Now, as is true across the country, Marcos’ slaughterhouse deals in “special meat”—human beings. Though Marcos understands the moral horror of his job supervising the workers who stun, kill, flay, and butcher other humans, he doesn’t feel much since the crib death of his infant son. “One can get used to almost anything,” he muses, “except for the death of a child.” One day, the head of a breeding center sends Marcos a gift: an adult female FGP, a “First Generation Pure,” born and bred in captivity. As Marcos lives with his product, he gradually begins to awaken to the trauma of his past and the nightmare of his present. This is Bazterrica’s first novel to appear in America, though she is widely published in her native Argentina, and it could have been inelegant, using shock value to get across ideas about the inherent brutality of factory farming and the cruelty of governments and societies willing to sacrifice their citizenry for power and money. It is a testament to Bazterrica’s skill that such a bleak book can also be a page-turner.

An unrelentingly dark and disquieting look at the way societies conform to committing atrocities.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-982150-92-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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All the narrative propulsion of escapist fiction without the escape.

PHASE SIX

Paced like a prophetic thriller, this novel suggests that "pandemic" is a continuing series.

Shepard has frequently employed research as a foundation for his literary creations, but never before in such pulse-racing fashion. He's set this narrative in the near future, when the threat of Covid-19 has passed but provides a cautionary lesson. And what have we learned from it? Not enough, apparently, as an outbreak within an extremely isolated settlement of Greenland begins its viral spread around the globe. Readers will find themselves in territory that feels eerily familiar—panic, politics, uncertainty, fear, a resistance to quarantine, an overload of media noise—as Shepard's command of tone never lets the tension ease. Eleven-year-old Aleq somehow survives the initial outbreak, which takes the lives of everyone close to him, and he may provide the key to some resolution if anyone can get him to talk. The novel follows the boy and the pandemic from Greenland to a laboratory facility in Montana as, in little more than a month, the virus or whatever it is, spread by touching, traveling, breathing, has infected some 14 million around the world. Jeannine Dziri and Danice Torrone, a pair of young researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who have dubbed themselves the “Junior Certain Death Squad,” find themselves on the front lines as they attempt to balance personal relationships (which occasionally read like plot contrivances) with all-consuming professional responsibilities. Meanwhile, the pandemic proceeds relentlessly. “APOCALYPSE II?” screams a Fox graphic amid “the social media cacophony,” as mass hysteria shows how human nature can take a horrible situation and make it so much worse. And though the novel builds to a sort of redemption, it suggests that there will be no resolution to the current pandemic beyond nervous anticipation toward the ones to come. Channeling Pasteur, Shepard promises—or threatens—“It will always be the microbes that have the last word.”

All the narrative propulsion of escapist fiction without the escape.

Pub Date: May 18, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-525-65545-9

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 27, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

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