I received this novel from Gollancz, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
When Jeremy Zsal contacted me about reading and reviewing his debut novel Stormblood, I was very intrigued by the narrative premise but at the same time slightly concerned because of the story’s military SF angle, since that’s a theme that sometimes does not work for me, but I should not have worried: this novel offers such a unique blend of ideas that they all work to create an engaging, multi-layered plot which proves to be appealing on many levels.
Vakov Fukasawa used to be a soldier for the Harmony, a galactic confederation of races fighting against a brutal adversary called the Harvest, whose armies were laying waste to every planet they stormed across. To insure an advantage against the Harvest’s sweeping offensive, the Harmony called for volunteers to be injected with stormtech, an alien substance that made them almost physically invincible and addicted them to a constant rush of adrenaline, so they would feel no fear or fatigue. In other words the perfect soldiers, called Reapers.
Once the war ended however, the Harmony found itself saddled with the problem of these super-soldiers, whose return to a normal life was made impossible by the stormtech bonded to their bodies and turning them into aggression addicts: a more or less successful de-programming procedure allowed them – those who survived it, that is – to be productive members of society, but still looked on with suspicion and fear because of the veritable ticking bomb fused to their bodies.
As the novel begins, Vakov is contacted by Harmony officials informing him that a black market form of stormtech is being distributed, turning citizens into dangerous addicts and systematically killing his former comrades – and it appears that Vakov’s long-estranged younger brother Artyom is involved in this criminal operation…
The novel’s framework certainly relies on action and adventure – and there is plenty of that, as Vak’s investigation moves across Compass, the asteroid where he lives, and intersects its many cultures and the various crime organizations which carved their niches there, plunging him into escalating levels of danger for himself and his allies – but the major attraction of this story comes from the main characters, their interactions and the important social and moral issues it deals with. Compass itself is a fascinating world, a hollowed-out asteroid in which different kinds of habitats have been created in the various levels, so that a visitor might move from shopping districts to seashore recreations, from night-club strips to ethnic enclaves: the descriptions here are cinematically vivid and all contribute to paint a rich, busy world where awe-inspiring wonders and spine-chilling dangers literally coexist side by side, offering a solid background to Vakov’s breathless scrambles as he pursues his foes or evades his chasers.
Vakov is an intriguing character saddled by a damaging past and by the heavy baggage of being a former Reaper, but instead of becoming a dark, tortured individual he tries to focus on the good things life still can offer him, like friendship or the sense of brotherhood he still shares with his former comrades – and of course there is the unshakable desire of reconnecting with his brother and making amends for past mistakes, that drives him to literally face hell with dogged determination. Vakov’s personality is slowly built through the successful blending of his present experiences and the flashbacks of his past as a Reaper, the current adrenaline-rich investigation and the heart-wrenching jumps into his childhood with its deep well of pain and loss, and the final result is a very relatable character who has learned to embrace his darkness, knowing it will be a part of him forever, but still refusing to let it rule him. The actual war might be over, but the inner one Vakov is still fighting will go on as long as he lives, and he’s determined to win it.
The other characters sharing the spotlight with Vakov are slightly less defined, but with the breathless chain of events at the core of the novel it’s more than understandable: the proficient hacker Grim, Harmony officer Katherine Kowalsky and rebel Artyom are in a way the representations of Vak’s most important sides of life – friendship, camaraderie, family – and also the anchors he needs to avoid being subsumed by the alien DNA rampaging through his body. And that’s more than enough.
The core theme of the novel, though, remains its driving strength, particularly where it touches on issues of our present reality, like the trauma and disconnect experienced by soldiers once they return to civilian life after a harrowing war experience. In Stormblood these veterans did not just fight to insure everyone’s survival, suffering grievous wounds and the loss of their teammates, they also accepted to have their bodies modified in a permanent way that turned them into something not quite human anymore, and now they are shunned, feared, marginalized. It’s something we have seen in reality in the past decades and still see now: the ethical dilemma of turning people into efficient killing machines and then being afraid of them once the need for that ruthlessness is over. There is no easy answer to this quandary, of course, but the novel compels us to think about the issue, and to consider it from several angles – and for me this is always a plus in any story.
The many “souls” of Stormblood make for a very engrossing read – military SF, cyberpunk, mystery and space opera are all different facets of this novel, not unlike the various, fascinating levels of Compass. As is the case of those worlds within worlds, some sections are easily traveled and others require caution – I confess there were a couple of harrowing torture scenes which made my skin crawl – but this is ultimately a captivating adventure story with plenty of heart at its center, and also a very human, very poignant journey.