The Digital Plague by Jeff Somers

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The Digital Plague by Jeff Somers

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: This future-noir styled thriller features a returning hero with a troubling world collapsing round his shoulders. Trying to get revenge on the people who made him the very cause is harder than he thinks, in this lively and pacy action read, which we recommend.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-1841497044

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I have to admit the previous book to be written about, and narrated by, killer-for-hire Avery Cates, did not last long in the memory. There is some gratitude that this book mentions the first literary outing in very oblique ways, to maximise the way this adventure is a self-contained one, but I did need reminding of the global scope of the first book, where a world-stifling religion, and a police force even more guilty of the same, were in conflict.

Cates starts this book at an unknown point in another conflict, with unknown adversaries knocking him about in an anonymous alley, putting a gun to his head and something else to, or even in fact inside, his bare neck. We know, because we have read the cover blurb, that this is a nasty that will be responsible for giving a quick and highly-diseased end to the few people this blunt-talking, blasé agent can call friend.

And, this being such a futuristic neo-noir, the people deemed missed by Cates are not the ones we might ourselves call friends. They include a fifteen year old girl colleague, admired for her skills with knives and the surprising level of threat she packed. This isn't a world, however, where long-term friendships can be formed – too much killing and animosity, and this partly colours the narration by Cates – something must be used as an excuse, anyway, for the way we just don't feel Cates has much sympathy for the dead.

Indeed, he is unable to put two and two together with conviction, until the authorities, who he must of course rail against, call him in, and only then does the revenge plot against those initial assailants kick in big time, and provide us with the action plot we end up with.

Or does it? The hero struggles with vengeance, and can never kick off on his own and achieve it – which only adds to his frustration, and the enjoyably complex plot he suffers through. And however much someone or something is willing him into a neo-noir story, where the lone ranger must clean up the world and still leave alone, so the plot nicely subverts any thoughts we might have about such a slender genre as the future-noir thriller, and forces him to collaborate with the ever more unusual, bizarre, and unseemly-met people.

Thus do characters from the first book, The Electric Church, make reappearances. But in a very nice way this book is a large leap on. Not only is the hero roughly nine years older and wiser, the plot is very nicely styled to be markedly different.

I thought some elements of the first-person narrative didn't work for the first book, but here it's much more of a success. There is a morally twisty path for Cates – whether he seems to worry for others, or be blasé and full of carelessness, we are very nicely right up close to his quandaries, and those the several protagonists provide him with. The tone of the whole plot might be bleak, and the arc of the story coming very grimly down on Cates' shoulders, but the plotting is tight, disarming and clever enough for us most definitely to want to read on.

It's almost as if someone has noticed my negative thoughts about the first book and dropped them – the poor repetitions overlapping chapter ends are gone, and while there is a large threat this book ends up just as much of a zombie shoot-em-up like the first, this does not happen. Instead we maintain the hellish descents of Cates (nay, the very city he calls home) through a finely depicted future horror, with fully-fledged humans and their thoughts and worries to the fore.

All the time, as well, the action is building at a very nice pace, and the descriptions – which the first-person character might have struggled with – are very good, and serve evidently well for giving us what we want of this future dystopia. The scope is still broad – a post-apocalyptic Paris is featured in a long scene – and the demolition of a whole US seaboard full of people is on a par with the human travails.

This then, is a much more successful book than the first. The manner of the story, the depth to it, and the reach to the whole adventure – for a superior action-adventure read is what it boils down to – is so much better. There is still a sense the beginning chapters could be a bit more audience-friendly, with some details of Cates' world told too much in the style of Cates and therefore not giving us here in 2008 what we might wish for, and there is a cyclical nature to the plotting that is a bit too foreseeable. And the clichés from the movies are here again – the Minority Report police zip-lines joined by the vicious gymnastics of the female killer we remember so well from Blade Runner.

Also, there is a sense that the book covers so much ground, it would be unfortunate in fact if the series were to go much further. So great is the apocalypse here, and so borderline unlikely the physical damage on Cates by the end, that the future book (introduced here with an extract I haven't bothered to read) might be a little OTT. And while I would not wish to rein in Jeff Somers for future reads, I would be surprised it the series did not suffer for having a potential fourth volume, forced by the success of this one to go too far. I only hope to be proved wrong.

An appendix at the end, from a minor character in the narrative, shows again that Somers is a quickly maturing writer, who here provides a much superior genre piece – and with bravery and good outcome, a great mixing of genres too – which the Bookbag recommends. There are minor flaws, and perhaps a more generous reviewer would very happily give four and a half stars, but all the same I would strongly suggest the sci-fi reader put this volume, if not the weaker series opener, on a list marked 'well worth investigation'.

I would like to thank Orbit for sending the Bookbag a review copy.

Jeff Somers' Avery Cates Series in Chronological Order

Booklists.jpg The Digital Plague by Jeff Somers is in the Bookbag's Science Fiction Picks.

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