Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: Hexcommunicated by Rafael Chandler, Book 1 of the Agent Tepes Series

 Nick Tepes is a Vampoule – a synthetic vampire created by the government to fight terrorists after the destruction of Providence by tentacled monstrosities in Y2K. It’s a new world, one with arcane terrorist attacks whipping out cities and he, along with Zheng, a Fearwolf, are agents travelling the world to stop it.

But there is an attack due far closer to home and some rogue FAE, enhanced beings, that don’t make any sense. He can follow orders and be decommissioned, let the attack go ahead and accept his new, questionable boss – or he and his team can go rogue and figure out what’s really going on and try to do what they were made for – save lives

On the run from CIA, they have to investigate this new massive scale attack – but quickly find themselves neck deep in complexities – not least of which is their own agency’s illicit testing of a weapon that should never have been created and the involvement of FAE agents from 2 foreign governments – with their own super-weapons, ready to deploy.

This world has an excellently unique premise. Terrorist organisations and world governments are using weapons of mass destruction, but not conventional explosions. These are created to cause as much terror as destruction – using lovecraftian horrors, zombie plagues and other scourges out of humanity’s nightmares. After the destruction of Providence at Y2k, governments pushed the envelopes in their experiments to change their best and their brightest into super soldiers.

Unfortunately, super soldiers tended to become non-functional, unable to deal with the changes in their bodies – their best and their brightest didn’t work well either. But picking people with the right mental profile (frequently mentally ill people) and then changing them not into super heroes, but into the monsters of legend was far more functional and had the advantage of being extra frightening for their opponents.

So we have the super strength, speed and healing – but also Nick, the Vampoule, with detachable fangs he can load up with different chemicals for injecting and the red-filtered nictitating membrane for night vision. Zheng, a Fearwolf, with metal claws and fangs and bristling fur that launches a hallucinogenic drug causing fear. The Soultergeist telekinetics and the Frankenstitch with his massive synthetic muscles – all the creatures of legend and Urban Fantasy produced through artificial means. It’s pretty unique and really well done.

The story is excellently paced, full of action, character growth and with enough red herrings, questions and twists to keep me riveted and excited throughout the book. There was nothing that needed to be edited out and equally nothing that needed to be developed further – it was perfectly balanced. The characters are very real and endearing – I liked all of them, Zheng, Nick, Else, they were all very real, very engaging and very relatable characters.

I started this book and I was worried. We had a cast made of people who had fled persecution in foreign countries, Nick as a Rroma fleeing Ceausescu Romania and Zheng fleeing China, both to become US government agents, fighting Middle Eastern-sounding terrorists in foreign countries across the world to save the nation for all good and true people. I cringed, I worried, I had visions of “Team America World police” and prepared for the snark I would have to write.

But, thankfully, the book didn’t go that way. For a start, Al-Hazared seemed to be made up of monsters – pale, white monsters at that – and wasn’t the primary foe anyway. There was far more of a Cold War feel to the book that “noble true westerners face evil terrorists” with world governments using ever more dangerous and devastating technology to throw at each other in ever more sinister and ever less ethical means. The enemy governments are cruel users of people seeking to create the perfect mass weapon – and so are the western governments as well. Ultra-patriotism is linked to, at best, naivety and just as often cruelty, callousness and down-right evil; the architects behind these atrocities are considered evil no matter which side they’re on. Blinkered loyalty is presented as both foolish and immoral, obeying your orders without question is similarly condemned and the excuse of “just following orders” or “it’s for my country’s safety” is firmly stamped down.

In other words, it takes a world in a National Security nightmare and thoroughly condemns the “ends justifies the means” thinking that so often arises out of them. Yes there are terrible terrorists – that doesn’t mean experimenting on people, including condemned criminals, is right. No, it’s never ok to let an attack on civilians go for the sake of curiosity. There are some weapons that should never be used, some things that cannot and should not be tolerated, no people shouldn’t just disappear and, ultimately, if these enhanced security agents aren’t protecting people then what is the point of them?

To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. I was ecstatic in the turn around as the characters refuse to return to the fold and accept the chain of command when the chain of command is wrong. I love that Else, is there to challenge the whole idea of the enemy being terrorists but expressly creating monsters to throw back at them is somehow not terrorism. I love the often sarcastic, but powerful little side references we often get – excellent ones include “peaceful protestors are unable to control rioting cops” or “bombed and then liberated” a country. There are references to many abuses in the past, including to marginalised groups and even little things like Else being a private investigator who both helps find kinds and helps undocumented migrants find help and safety because they can’t turn to the police. There’s a lot of issues which are referred to starkly and unflinchingly but never in a preaching or lecturing way, we have a side comment, a passing look, a brief element of portrayal that just shows injustice, unfairness, cruelty, marginalisation or other issue. Even little things like Nick and Zheng being irritated because everyone assumes their junior colleague is the boss because he’s a blond, all-American, white man.

As for inclusion – Nick Tepes is a Rroma and Bettie Zheng is an Asian Lesbian. Her lover dies which is annoying, but the full extent of that grief is covered and given all due importance. Even though Krieger is Nick’s mentor, her death is presented as far more of a blow to Zheng than to Nick. Her grief is always respected throughout the book and her understandable rage is never put aside. I particularly like when Nick tells the murderer that Krieger and Zheng were an item and the murderer pales, it was a nice touch.

The female characters are awesome – Zheng is capable, strong, dangerous, all probably more so than Nick. Svieta is complex and interesting and mysterious, a double agent, maybe, but one willing to work for the greater good. Perhaps best of all is Else, a normal human and a love interest (and a stalky, unpleasant love interest as well – the romance was a real let down and there is no way a complete stranger breaking into your house to sleep in your bed can ever be anything but creepy) but she is a constant part of the story. She has skills, she has ideas, she is respected and consulted even when there is a cloud of suspicion over her, even though she isn’t a FAE, she can be strong without any special skills or super powers; she’s human and she’s still awesome.

The world’s governments tried to make neuro-typical people into FAE – or Enhanced humans. And it didn’t work, most of them broke, unable to function in their new bodies. In addition to aligning the enhancements with mythological archetypes, the programme also sought out people who weren’t neuro-typical, people with mental illnesses. Which means all of the super powerful characters are also mentally ill – and through that we do see the effects of the flashbacks of Nick’s PTSD.

I loved this book. It started well and just got better. There’s no element to it I didn’t like, there’s very little I would change and there’s very little that could force me to put it down until I’d read the very last page. I love the characters, Iove the world, love the concept, love the messages, love the inclusion, love the pacing, love the action – just love this book. And I can’t wait to read the rest of the series – and I hope there are many many more to come.

A copy of this book was provided by the author to review