Revenants Awake, by Adam J. Simpson, is a good example of science fiction within the quasi-military subgenre. Although I’m not the best audience for rebellious citizen/fighter sagas, I feel I can assess it as an example of a type with a proven trail of popularity across book and film over the last thirty years. Some of the absolute classics are from this subgenre.
The story follows a missing tribe of humans who have travelled across space to escape a cataclysmic disaster on their home world (Earth?). They’ve arrived on a new world, striven to set up a better society, done well at first, then the whole thing’s crumbled as tyrants have seized control and bent it to their will. The baddies don’t just have control of the population, they own the research and development side too so keep everyone subordinate through advanced technology, which usually means weapons.
Every theatrical tyranny needs its trappings and apparatus of state (fear, towers, sociopath henchmen, long black coats, squaddies, snarling dogs) because the good side wouldn’t be heroes if there’s nothing much to beat and you can only measure their triumph by the strength of the thing they’ve overcome, so the author does the right thing in the first book of a series by laying that opposition out clearly. The feeling the reader gets that in the face of these numbers and neurotoxins is that the freedom fighters should give in and comply as they’ve got no chance, which helps to underline that these characters either have a better mental focus on the value of freedom than does the reader or don’t care if they die. How far do you have to be pushed to not care what happens to you? The atmosphere becomes heady.
The other trick the author uses is to complicate the plot by placing secret rebel sleepers into the regime’s camp and secret government agents amongst the rebels. Not knowing whether you can trust your own side enough to risk going to sleep without being stabbed in the back is a rare sensation for most but one I recognise (evil cowfreak step-sister). This plot device isn’t over-used but it does provide a strong foundation of intrigue that spins the story into new depths that can even touch a reviewer’s psyche. Look down, no further, past the snapped ladder that drops off the edge, right down there in the gloom, in a circle of hell from which there’s no escape. Yep. That’s me, waving.
As I suggested earlier, the militia content of blood, bullets, blades and scouting platoons is heavily represented throughout and that’s usually there to add vigour to the twin causes of manoeuvring the ‘Sons of Karrick’ rebellion [sounds a bit Klingon] around the government strikes and rescuing the ‘princess’ figure who has a genetic mutation that makes her the one pawn in the game that both sides need to capture. She receives the able support of a strong man (proletariat hero) and his enormous dog, or perhaps that’s back to front, who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when she’s attacked (or swap that around as well, as it’s the right place at the perfect time from her perspective). I liked the monstrous dog as a character but I would be scared of it because ‘gentle giant’ it ain’t.
The visual aspect of the tale is worth adding to the news, from a doomed space ship ploughing through a wilderness of snow to metamaterials that defy chemistry and contrived beings that can summon shattered debris from the floor to form into moving scales of clothes; or instant weapons. The beautiful being who slithers out of a sarcophagus and has irresistible powers of destruction reminds me of a very old sci-fi film called Lifeforce (1985, about space vampires), although there’s no further similarity. I was left wondering whether she was on either side in particular or if her role was to guard and kill without needing to do any intellectual processing. The character was portrayed as a thing in a woman’s shape, not a person, so if ‘she’ appeared to be fighting on your team’s side, that should be considered a temporary, illusionary allegiance. The only motivations I could gather from her were fear (an animal emotion) and to protect (duty and reasoning), so perhaps ‘she’ isn’t an ‘it’ after all and we only need to get to know her better. Why though? Inventing a new being is a lot of trouble to go to if you only need to perform a function. More slither magic in book 2?
My nit-picking bitch comments are all fairly superficial but here they are anyway: I suggest it could have covered the same ground in fewer pages, i.e. a good editor might have condensed it from 592 pages in the ebook to perhaps under 500 by looking again at the length of descriptive passages. Some of my favourite authors write longer descriptive passages than in this but their soup is thicker, with meaningful metaphorical observations and more quirky imagery that stands out. This has got some memorable pictures, with loping hounds and ominously red lenses, but I think it’s all too spaced out. Secondly, I spotted about ten instances of missing possessive apostrophes, e.g. the objects fall or the ships programming instead of the object’s or ship’s, which are no big deal in the glorious and rebellious scheme of things but it’s pretty straightforward to remove that unnecessary irritation that hiccups the flow with a read through. Thirdly, as with all the military sci-fi I’ve ever seen, we see a high proportion of fit, adult, 20 to 30 y/o people (which is ok) but this is partly set in a wider active social structure and I’d like to see a few more characters who fit a different shape or demographic occasionally, or think and talk as if they’ve grown up with a markedly different experience and see the same world from an independent angle. Frail people don’t have to be too boring to mention, although please don’t give them any ninja abilities. Just make them thinkers or people who’ve been sheltered from the truth, with proper experiences and opinions, so if the rebels can persuade these independent minds to come around to their point of view, the readers will come on board right behind them. Just to disprove what I’ve said, a couple of children pop up near the end but their characters aren’t developed yet, so I assume that will happen in the next book (this is the opening of a series).
Well then. This is a decent read in the ever-growing rebellion sci-fi tradition and appears as if it’s paced for a much longer run. The world has been built and layers of development are going in, with key characters for the continuation of the series finding their feet and thriving. Like in soap opera format, as the book ends, the readers are left wondering what will happen next, where the story is going and what the explanation could be for the thing on the space ship, the children, the controller and the rebellion, more questions than answers, so I can imagine people buying the next book when they finish this one and then seeing this series through to the end.
Four stars is what I assign when the book is good, competent, reads well, has believable characters, tells a strong and adventurous story and adds to the genre but doesn’t quite have that abundant philosophy, effortless charm, revelation of a stunning idea, lyrical language, cult style or other magical and unusual factor that would make it an outright sensation. Apart from voice and writing style, in a series it’s always hard to know if one of those factors is just around the corner. Perhaps then this should not be assessed in isolation from the series, but I can only rate what I see. Sure, it’s a good adventure with no shortage of movement and variety in which people are brave and get hurt frequently – You could become very rich selling bandages in this world. Sure, there’s an air of oppression and hopelessness which the rebels can push against to prove themselves but I think the soldierly shooting and pain have mostly been covered now, so I’m looking forward to some killer lines to quote instead, a pantomime villain that we love to hate, original humanities of thought from lesser characters and occasional moments of irony (or even fun) as the clouds clear the dazzling rim of the sun through the rest of the series to add additional dimensions and perspectives. That would be good, if the author wants to put a classic series to his name. This writer has done the hard building work, installed characters, tech and imagination, owns this new world he’s created and looks ready to take the next step, into flights of inspiration.