Chameleon Assassin, by B.R. Kingsolver - 3 Stars

A free copy of this book was submitted to the Having Faith Book Review Blog for an honest and independent review.

The first thing I want to say is that I’m not the best person to review Chameleon Assassin by B.R. Kingsolver as I don’t think I’m the intended market for it. However, it’s hard enough getting independent reviews and I’ve read it, so I should try. Therefore, I should assess it highly objectively, i.e. according to whether it is a fine example of its category. In short, if you like this type, then you should buy this book because it fulfils all the necessary criteria.

Chameleon Assassin is a roughty-toughty, punchy and growly, freelance procedural investigation novel with characters drawn from a post-apocalyptic mutating culture based around Toronto. The protagonist is a strong female who passes through her world like a tank through rows of tomatoes. A possessor of mutant skills and trained killer, nothing’s going to stop her finding the truth – and if the baddies corner her at home, her father sits in his armour-plated wheelchair and fires rockets at them, a little like Steven Hawking in The Simpsons. There’s also a problem drug called ‘Luvdaze’ to investigate, a little reminiscent of ‘Nuke’ in Robocop, but both represent whatever comes next after amphetamines so that’s fair enough. I only spotted a couple of errors in the whole thing but I also noticed a variety of good lines and observations, such as not wanting to be found unconscious during a burglary because it’s a bit sissy. Is the hero good or is she bad? Well, that’s left up to the reader’s sense of moral perspective. There are no lessons from the pulpit here.

I mentioned the style earlier and that comment needs clarifying. This is a futuristic tale in an almost alternative reality, although still recognisably set in our world, but the book I’d match the style to is Casino Royale (Ian Fleming), although also a few of the James Cagney-type hard drinking private detective tales where the women are ‘broads’ and everyone keeps whisky in the desk. No, it’s deliberately not sexist. What they have in common is the hard-living style with no sensitivity or femininity anywhere. There are dominant males and dominant females, both corporate and civilian. Yes, she rescues an orphan but she still maintains her hard as nails defensive cloak when she’s done it. The female lead is a genuine alpha, so walks the walk and talks the talk like a man. I understand that this may also be deliberate, to show she’s had a hard upbringing and had to become like this to survive (see Ripley in Aliens) but when she delivers a line the voice in my head speaks it as male. As this book is written in the first person, that’s quite a heavy delivery of female content that sounds male to me. Paraphrasing, “I walked up and sprayed the three guys in the parked car” could easily fit into a soldier’s tale of active service somewhere. The hits or kills come out of nowhere, without passion or remorse, cans on a wall, and you almost read past them before you know what’s happening. Did the author aim for sudden shock and the reaction ‘I see! She only went there to kill that character’. Ignore me. I don’t think I can criticise this style as a plus or minus because Casino Royale and Bravo Two Zero etc were hugely successful books which gave rise to swathes of highly popular culture, as did films like Die Hard. Therefore, the problem is with me because I don’t play with soldiers. Would I have given Casino Royale a 5? Probably not, but the rest of the world would have.

One aspect I thought was inspired was the idea that the Chamber of Commerce and the corporations run the world because the governments had all their toys taken away when everyone decided they couldn’t be trusted (after firing off some nuclear missiles). Anything which gets in the way of business is bad, so society is run and regulated by commerce, apparently for free, to serve the commercial incentive of public stability. Is this an inspired idea that might turn out to be true some day? Governments contract out so many services to corporations, pay them for so much advice and there are so many government folk on boards that it could be the next step.

All in all, it’s not for me – but it could be for you. Do you like the pugnacious action movie style with a gal who knocks the men’s heads together all day long because she can? Do you want to read about all the street crooks, dealers and hoodlums getting their come uppance? Enough people do, judging by how well the comic book hero market’s doing. What I’d like to see would be for this author to write a believable three-dimensional female character (in a different story and setting, where it does fit), just to show everyone that this female lead is supposed to be tough like that and it’s not because male authors find realistic and credible-sounding female characters to be a challenge. Come to think of it, is this a male or female writer? It isn’t stated anywhere, including on their blog, so this could be the P.D. James thing of a female writing in as male a way as possible.

I’ll give the book 3 stars (about 65%, versus Casino Royale at the top of the scale) but it would be closer to 4 if the author proved he (I think, or you've totally fooled me) could get inside women’s heads. Maybe I should read one of B.R.’s romance novels.

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