Cartoony action elements don’t blunt the anger of this bracing SF thriller about slavery.

THE WEEPING SILENCE

In a corporate/authoritarian future, a police detective tries to rescue his journalist wife when they are both targeted by a deadly conspiracy to sanction slavery in the United States.

Gurgu opens an SF series based on the potent political premise of a capitalism-yoked, tech-choked Earth of the not-too-distant future embracing slavery as an accepted economic engine. Following eco-collapse, war, and the “Black Crisis” that wrought 80% unemployment, corporations formed their own union to dictate terms most favorable to their survival. In Britain of all places, this notion takes root as institutionalized “servitude.” Whole families with missed debt payments—which encompass almost everyone—can be seized and enslaved. In an America dominated by a monolithic Republican Party, this harsh system is about to be approved under the breathtakingly hypocritical “Freedom Act.” But already, entrepreneurs have broken the law in creating clandestine slave-processing centers (and mass graves). Hard-charging New York City Police Department detective Blake Frye (think Liam Neeson meets Gerard Butler, but tougher) is blissfully married to crusading investigative journalist Amy, whose career derailed when she identified prominent businessman William Wilmot as an underground slave magnate. Wilmot bought her TV network, seeking to dispose of everyone connected to the report. Now, with Amy one of Wilmot’s few surviving enemy-list targets, Frye reluctantly goes to grim, protest-wracked London for a secret rendezvous. It seems even British servitude companies are horrified by the prospect of the lucrative American slave market being monopolized under ruthless Wilmot and want Frye to remove the threat. Upon returning to the “land of the free,” Frye and Amy are imperiled by the corrupt Department of Homeland Customs and Border Security and everyone on Wilmot’s secret payroll. Even with a recursive narrative structure that regularly flashes back to account for how this ordeal came about, the novel keeps the momentum rolling along, and readers will feel chained to what happens next. And lest one wonder how Donald Trump factors into this dystopian vision, Frye ponders that the year 2017 was when everything started going wrong. The author chooses to have Frye afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a trait that supposedly sharpens his deductive skills. But this portrayal also recalls TV’s whimsical, OCD–ridden crime-buster Adrian Monk, a jarring contrast when pyrotechnics and cliffhangers reminiscent of a 007 spectacle break loose.

Cartoony action elements don’t blunt the anger of this bracing SF thriller about slavery.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 357

Publisher: Manuscript

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2020

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Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

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THE TESTAMENTS

Atwood goes back to Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), consistently regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, has gained new attention in recent years with the success of the Hulu series as well as fresh appreciation from readers who feel like this story has new relevance in America’s current political climate. Atwood herself has spoken about how news headlines have made her dystopian fiction seem eerily plausible, and it’s not difficult to imagine her wanting to revisit Gilead as the TV show has sped past where her narrative ended. Like the novel that preceded it, this sequel is presented as found documents—first-person accounts of life inside a misogynistic theocracy from three informants. There is Agnes Jemima, a girl who rejects the marriage her family arranges for her but still has faith in God and Gilead. There’s Daisy, who learns on her 16th birthday that her whole life has been a lie. And there's Aunt Lydia, the woman responsible for turning women into Handmaids. This approach gives readers insight into different aspects of life inside and outside Gilead, but it also leads to a book that sometimes feels overstuffed. The Handmaid’s Tale combined exquisite lyricism with a powerful sense of urgency, as if a thoughtful, perceptive woman was racing against time to give witness to her experience. That narrator hinted at more than she said; Atwood seemed to trust readers to fill in the gaps. This dynamic created an atmosphere of intimacy. However curious we might be about Gilead and the resistance operating outside that country, what we learn here is that what Atwood left unsaid in the first novel generated more horror and outrage than explicit detail can. And the more we get to know Agnes, Daisy, and Aunt Lydia, the less convincing they become. It’s hard, of course, to compete with a beloved classic, so maybe the best way to read this new book is to forget about The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoy it as an artful feminist thriller.

Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54378-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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A daring change of genres, and an entertaining whirlwind at that.

HUMMINGBIRD SALAMANDER

The prolific VanderMeer moves from fantasy into noir territory with this version of an eco-thriller.

The natural world always takes a front-row seat in a VanderMeer yarn—see, for example, Borne (2017) or Dead Astronauts (2019)—even if it’s a natural world that has suffered at human hands and by human tinkering. That’s true of this story as well, which opens with a tantalizing puzzle: A mysterious woman named Silvina has left behind a coded message for a security expert who suggests that we call her “Jane Smith” and who adds that she is “here to show you how the world ends.” That clue involves a taxidermic hummingbird, the last of its kind, and, following a few ellipses in the accompanying note, the word salamander. No, not Salander, though Jane has a number of things in common with Stieg Larsson’s heroine: She can pound most dudes into tapioca, and she’s pretty handy with a gun and a computer, too. The story, as it develops by twists and turns, involves a very, very wealthy South American bad guy who’s been raping the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest and doing a little exotic wildlife smuggling on the side while his daughter has become an eco-warrior who doesn’t mind the detonation of a few bombs in order to save wildlife. Naturally, the bad guy isn’t entirely bad, the good woman isn’t entirely good, and their stories intertwine in nicely tangled ways. It wouldn’t be a VanderMeer story, no matter what the genre, without a post-apocalyptic turn, and after all the assorted villains (one of them in particular very evil indeed) and oversized amphibians and mad-scientist taxidermists and exploding heads, it’s sort of nice to get to a future that no one will survive—one that strongly resembles 2020, for that matter.

A daring change of genres, and an entertaining whirlwind at that.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-3741-7354-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 25, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2021

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