I enjoyed the 'Dream Park' books that Steven Barnes wrote with Larry Niven. I loved the 'Heorot' books that he wrote with Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I liked his 'Aubry Knight' trilogy, though it took me until the second one to climb on board. However, I think I'm enjoying his solo standalones most of all. This is his third and it shares common themes with the other two, 'The Kundalini Equation' and 'Blood Brothers', but finds different territory in which to explore them.
One thing that I like about this one is that it kept me guessing, all the way through the almost four hundred pages. And I don't just mean about whodunit or some other detail, I mean what's actually happening and where it's going. That's sure going to throw some readers, but I appreciated its merging of genres and its eagerness to explore them.
Initially, it seems to be a thriller. There's a rivalry between Juvell Associates and Quest Security that's polite but obviously ready to become deadly at the drop of a hat. We're with Portia 'Cat' Juvell and Jackson 'Jax' Carpenter as they work a job: the extraction of a girl kidnapped from her mother by her abusive father. It doesn't go quite as planned, but it works out because of ingenuity and guts.
They're clearly the good guys, as is their third, Cat's brother Tyler, who is confined to a wheelchair, making him an unusual primary character, though it takes a while for him to make his presence crucial, because Cat and Jax are the overt leads. Cat is a short, white, blonde bombshell of a martial arts expert. Jax is a big guy, almost twice her size, and of mixed-race, if I caught that correctly. They used to be married, are now divorced but are still clearly good friends and business partners. They work well together.
The job that takes up the majority of this book sees them hired by a very wealthy man, Dr. Maxwell Sinclair, to find his sister, who has been caught up in a cult by the name of the Golden Sun, which is led by a pair of separated Siamese twins who go by Tomo and Joy. The initial problem is that Cat and Jax will need to sign up and take part in a sort of sex workshop to find her. Once they do, the next problem is that she doesn't want to leave and, by this point, our heroes kind of understand why.
And the problems only build from there. It's already got a little weird, though Cat and Jax haven't seen as much as we the readers have been let in on. They just have to wonder about how the Twins seem to be immune to pain and why a young man would rather eat broken glass than talk with them. We've seen some metamorphic manifestations with a deadly track record. Yes, this one has a supernatural element too and it's a doozy. I will no delve much deeper into a synopsis, though, as this is an easy novel to spoil, given all its twists and turns and revelations.
What I will say is that, while it's certainly told using a swathe of thriller conventions, it isn't really a thriller. I'd say that it counts as a horror novel, but it's not as comfortable in that clothing as 'Blood Brothers' was, even with supernatural death scenes. Like most of Steven Barnes's output, it touches on science fiction but there are no spaceships and rayguns and we never set foot off this planet. We could call it fantasy as well as general fiction and probably a few other genres too.
It's easier to say what it isn't. It's certainly not a western, for a start, or a kids' book. It's fair to say that this touches on a lot of sensitive or taboo subjects, from incest and child abuse to PTSD and the horrors of war, not to forget race which is handled well here with a number of characters of mixed race. Of course, I'm reading in America, so more people are likely to complain about the sex workshop's curriculum. That does get kinky and it's not a short section either. I doubt it really needed to be that long.
Arguably, the book didn't need to be this long either, but it reads like the words flowed for Barnes and he let them come. There are background sections that contribute a little to the bigger picture, but perhaps didn't warrant the space they were given. Oddly, the most overt problem I had with the book is that a number of revelations come late on in a very fast and unprompted fashion. They warranted more than a lightbulb moment at a crucial point in the story.
I can see why some people would not just not like this but vehemently not like it, but it worked for me. I don't need my books to fit in a clearly defined bucket and I appreciate when one refuses to let me figure it out early. One of the fundamental questions we ask early in this novel revolves around whether Tomo and Joy are good people or bad and I can say that I changed my mind on that a number of times without ever feeling cheated. That's the sort of thing that keeps me hooked.
I might call this the weakest of Barnes's three standalone solo novels thus far, but that's more about how much more I like the other two rather than how much less I like this. It grabbed me early, kept me throughout and left me thinking about a lot, in a good way. I also wondered about whether 'The Kundalini Equation', 'Blood Brothers' and this book qualify as a thematic trilogy. If so, it's a good one.
And now for something completely different, as they say. Next up for Barnes was a 'Star Trek: Deep Space 9' novel, which ought to be an eye opener for me, given that I've never seen the show. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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