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The Plague Forge
Dire Earth Cycle #3
by Jason M. Hough
Del Rey, $9.99, 516pp
Published: September 2013

Book Three of the Dire Earth Cycle.  Click here for a review of the Darwin Elevator and here for the Exodus Towers.  Again, this is not a standalone story, it really a continuation from the previous book; and don’t expect a resolution at the end…

In the late 23rd century, the earth was visited by aliens called The Builders.  These Builders “gifted” us with a functional space elevator – a cord anchored above the earth enabling us to send vehicles up the cord and place stations in orbit.  But the gift came with a nasty side effect:  a world-wide plague that either killed people immediately or changed them into primitive murderous subhumans.  A very few lucky ones were immune to the disease.  But the elevator emitted an “aura” extending through much of the city of Darwin, Australia that was a safe zone; keeping the disease in stasis for those who managed to get to Darwin.  The rest of the world was lost.  The Builders visited again, on some kind of schedule, and gave another gift:  a second space elevator – in Belem, Brazil.  This gift also came with a new tool:  a set of “portable” aura towers that can be pushed/towed anywhere, creating a pocket of protection to non-immunes.  The aliens also dropped small ships with some odd artifacts all over the world. At the end of the last book, Skylar and Tania took one of the alien artifacts up to the Builder ship in orbit and inserted it into a kind of “key room.”

This book picks up with our hero, Skylar, back to running scavenger teams with his lover, Ana, but this time they’re scavenging the remaining alien artifacts.  They don’t have any idea what the significance is of the items nor what will happen when they are brought to the huge Builder ship in orbit and inserted into the key room.  It fascinated me to watch the author push his characters into action with little motivation.  There is no immediate or even promised reward for their actions; just a pressing need to do something.  There are several more artifacts to find and one of their searches takes them to the apparent site of the original source of the SUBS plague which is still spewing plague into the atmosphere. 

One of the artifacts is in the hands of the cult leader of Nightcliffs, Grillo.  The same artifact that Samantha was sent to get in the second book, The Exodus Towers.  Recovering that artifact may be even more dangerous than breaching alien ships and battling armored subhumans.  One plot hole is how Grillo knew of the artifact and for what he intended it.  The author did not sufficiently explain it.  Even more confusing is that Grillo and Skylar’s crew have the same intention:  return the artifact to the key ship; but the author has the two sides battling for the honor of being the one to bring the object to the ship.  I think there was an exchange where the “good guys” theorize that there may be some effect depending on who inserted the object in the key room; but since none of the characters even know why the objects have to be brought up to the alien ship like puzzle pieces, their motivations are vague and frustrated me.

Secondary characters became more detailed and I really liked them, they added so much more depth to the story.  It is really an ensemble cast with the main characters shifting within the story.  While the action was pretty much non-stop and very exciting, I continue to have a problem with the plot.  The final confrontation between Skylar and Grillo just didn’t make sense to me.  The characters seem to be motivated solely by a need to act.  They have only assumptions on the nature of the Builders and attribute human motivations to the aliens’ actions.  It frustrated me to see so many resources used to an uncertain end.  The only clear motivator was that the fate of the human race was bleak with no foreseeable good outcome…so why not do what the Builders want?  Maybe they’ll fix what they broke…  It seemed a fragile hope on which to hang all their lives and while, as I said, it was very exciting, I couldn’t really understand their motivations.  But now I simply have to see how this all ends.  ~~  Catherine Book

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