My rating: 4 of 5 stars
DISCLAIMER: I received this copy in exchange for a review.
WARNING: This review contains mild spoilers.
I have mixed emotions about this novel. Parts of it are so very well done, that the parts that come up a little short are glaring.
The world building is intriguing, and had me hooked from the start. The “Halfskin” universe (home of “Halfskin (Halfskin, #1)” & “Clay (Halfskin, #2)”) has an intuitive, lived-in feel. The reader picks up on the social clues scattered by Tony Bertauski, and feels familiar with the world of the narrative. This book stands on it’s own. Having said that, reading “Halfskin” first will likely provide richer history, context, and background.
We are introduced to a society coming to grips with the ultimate means of empowerment and escape, the cell-replacing “biomites.” The gritty, noir feel of the universe is not so much Mad Max as Blade Runner. The raw descriptions of the characters and their settings give you a sense of immediacy. This isn’t so much about a far flung future as it is about an alternate now.
The audio is very clean, slick, and professional. I didn’t hear any duplicated lines, bad edits, or background noise. Frankly, I am in envy of David Dietz’s ability to simply and effectively put individual voices to the characters, particularly the female characters. That’s not an easy task for a male narrator.
Bertauski reached for, and by-and-large grasped, the themes of: the need for community, the dangers of isolation, the heavy burden of dependence, the distraction of social media, the illusion of a single reality, and the faded nobility of sacrifice. There are others, I’m sure, but these are the ones that stuck with me.
One trope bugged me; the bad guy as religious fanatic. The character’s skewed use of scripture to justify his actions was particularly rankling. I kept wanting to shout him down. Kudos to Bertauski for invoking this strong of a reaction in me.
The religious overtones and parallels begin with the novel’s title “Clay,” and continue: Marcus Anderson’s obsession with purity and his righteous disdain of biomite use, Cali’s messianic position, and ultimate, willing sacrifice. But, the very odd, and very genius moment comes when Bertauski casts the AI “Mother” as mankind’s savior. Not what you normally find in a cyberpunk novel!
There is an ensemble cast of protagonists. Other reviewers have mentioned difficulty following the shifting POV, however if you know to expect that going in, it’s fairly easy to keep up with the main protagonists: Nix Richards, Jamie, Cali Richards, Paul, Raine, and Marcus Anderson.
Of the protagonists, I had the most trouble with Nix Richards. Often he didn’t strike me as someone who could survive 20+ years in hiding. He didn’t exude the degree of cold implacableness hiding from a determined government search would require. It was more of a desperate, whiny neediness. At times, I had a difficulty reconciling his present actions with previous ones.
The resolution to the central conflict had the feel of “…and a wizard walked by.” It welled up suddenly, attempting to resolve disparate issues on multiple plot lines. It felt ungainly and clunky, particularly in light of the story craft exhibited to that point. Cali’s ultimate decision smacked more of exhaustion and desperation than noble sacrifice. However, Bertauski weaves that into an almost perfect noir ending; she won’t get the brass ring, but her actions might make it possible for others.
Unfortunately, the book didn’t end there, instead opting to tack on two additional endings that seem to be positioning the plot for the next book in the series. Like Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings,” it just didn’t seem to know when to quit. These endings, with Marcus and Raine, could easily be the opening chapters of the next book, unless Bertauski isn’t planning anymore. And, that would be a shame. I believe the “Halfskin” universe has a lot more stories to tell, and I’d certainly like to hear them.