Dean Thibodeaux is the lead guitarist in the failing band “Man Made Murder”: on the night before the band’s departure for a tour none of them is very sanguine about, he follows a shady biker to an abandoned shack, with the goal of buying some drugs, but the guy reveals himself as a vampire who then proceeds to attack Dean. The guitarist, badly hurt and shocked, manages to escape and drive over the vampire with his truck: once he rejoins the band for the tour he worries at the terrible changes his body is undergoing. Carl Delacroix is a man obsessed: hunting for the individual he’s convinced killed his younger sister two years before, he goes on a relentless pursuit across the country, following a biker whose appearance and dress are quite similar to Dean Thibodeaux’s attacker’s…
This is the intriguing premise of Man Made Murder: this novel develops along two separate threads that are destined to connect and does so with a steady, fast-paced progression that manages to show the inevitability of events while at the same time keeping narrative and emotional tension at the highest levels. What happens to the two main characters can be described as a train-wreck in progress: you know how certain situations are going to end, and yet you are incapable of taking your eyes off the page and need to go on, to the bitter end. There is an overall darkness in this story, a darkness of the soul that has nothing to do with what happens to the characters but is rather something they already carry within themselves. It’s obvious for Carl, because of the enormous guilt weighing on him for the failure to protect his younger sister, but it’s less so for Dean who – despite the downward spiral of the band – has a lot going for him, not least the strong sense of camaraderie, of family, enjoyed by the group of musicians.
These are the book’s points of strength, and the very reason I stayed with it until the end – which is not a real end because this is the first volume in a trilogy and the last chapter hints at story developments that are just as intriguing as the premise: why then did I give such a low rating to Man Made Murder?
One of the reasons is characterization, and particularly Carl’s: on one side it’s understandable that he would cave in under the mountain of guilt for not being there when his sister needed him most, but his determination – his obsession – to find her killer when the police all but abandon the search is fueled more by whining self-recrimination than true desire to see justice done. When he finally finds the man he believes killed his Sophie, events conspire to take his vengeance from him: does he rant and rave about the unfairness of it all? No. His attitude is rather: “Oh, well, the guy’s dead anyway and I didn’t even get blood on my hands. Let’s go home and have pizza!” The situation gets even worse when Carl discovers a chilling truth about the man he thought was his only friend: he does not mourn so much his blindness in not seeing the signs, he grieves (and whines, of course) because now he’s all alone in the world…
To say I was puzzled would be a huge understatement: there was such a massive buildup in his search for vengeance and justice, that the aftermath seems like the proverbial mouse birthed by a mountain.
For his part, Dean seems to move in a sort of drugged state that’s understandable from the point of view of what happened – and is still happening – to him, but at the same time gives us nothing of who and what he is underneath all this.
Neither of these characters does anything to emotionally involve me: while I was able to follow the story with keen interest, for the reasons I stated above, I could not summon any empathy for them, and to me this is quite wrong.
The other factor at the root of my displeasure is the author’s seeming fascination with the f* word in its many variations, as well as with bodily functions: if, from a certain point of view, I understand that these are elements that contribute to the grittiness of a story, from another the abuse of those same elements can defeat its own purpose and turn gritty into grotesque. I doubt that this was the intent in this particular choice, but my reaction to these endless repetitions was a mixture of boredom and annoyance: again, not the kind of reaction I expect from an otherwise riveting tale. In other words, great ideas but faulty delivery, and a great disappointment.
Slow Bullets is slightly different from the kind of narrative I grew used to after reading Reynolds’ books like Chasm City, Revelation Space, Redemption Ark or Absolution Gap: the scope here does not concern galactic civilizations or multi-layered political plots, but rather focuses on smaller-scale events that nonetheless manage to gain intensity and depth because of that reduced focus, and not in spite of it.
The main character here is Scur, a soldier who’s been conscripted to fight in a bloody war: when we first see her, a ceasefire has just been declared and yet she’s captured by the enemy and subjected to torture by Orvin, an infamous psychopathic killer from the opposite side. Left for dead, she wakes up in a hibernation pod on a ship that’s undergone some form of catastrophic malfunction and is now orbiting what looks like a dead system. The great majority of the slowly waking occupants of the hibernation pods seems to be composed of soldiers from both sides of the war, plus a smattering of civilians, and a skeleton crew: Scur takes on, almost by default, the job of organizing the survivors and finding out their chances of repairing the ship and trying to get back to their intended destination.
The questions about what happened and the need for survival, this last endangered by far-reaching frictions between the waking passengers, are compounded by the awareness that the ship is slowly, but surely, losing precious information because of a program rewriting initiated by the malfunction itself. And memory is indeed at the core of this story, starting with the titular slow bullets – a recording device implanted in soldiers to keep score of their actions and also to store important memories and personal data.
The fact that Scur’s torture at the hands of Orvin occurs through the twisted use of a slow bullet underlines how memory can be painful as well as a comfort. So, as the marooned passengers slowly understand that their predicament could not be purely ascribed to an accident, as they realize their numbers are mostly composed by people no one wants around – because they are useless, or dangerous, or simply a burden – they also recognize that only by letting go of their personal memories, of their past, they can start planning for the future. It’s a terrible, sad realization, placed into stark relief by Scur’s attachment to her parents’ pictures, stored in her slow bullet – her only contact with them, with her past and the person she was before the war and her conscription in the army. What she and the other survivors must accept the terrible necessity to give up that past to be able to build a future: even though the hope for that future is clearly expressed in the story, the price it requires seems too high, too heartrending.
All this is presented through Scur’s voice and point of view: her almost blunt, soldierly manner cracks at times to show a different person, one far less pragmatic and hardened than the one she shows to the world, and these chinks in her armor endeared her to me, made her real. Underneath the soldier, and survivor of a heated conflict, sometimes lurks a person who pines for her lost life, the missed opportunities, the untrodden paths that fate denied her: it’s never openly stated, never spoken out loud, but it’s there and it’s a form of quiet desperation that denies detachment and does not leave you untouched.
It’s a more intimate vision than what I encountered until now in Reynolds’ books, but for this very reason it felt more profound and poignant than any other I read so far, and it gave me a new level of interpretation for this author, and a key to a new way of reading his stories.
Highly recommended, both for Reynolds’ admirers and as an introduction to this author.
My Rating: 8/10
The first time I read about the concept for this story I was intrigued: a battalion of soldiers fighting on the Somme, during WWI, is mysteriously transported on another planet, where they find themselves fighting another kind of war, against a hostile environment and predatory creatures. So, when I signed up at NetGalley and started browsing around, one of the first titles I saw was the omnibus containing all three novels in this series, and requested it right away – luck was with me, because I was swiftly granted the book.
The first thing I noticed, as I started reading, was the amount of research work that must have gone into crafting the background for the story: the details of trench life, warfare and of the day-to-day hellish existence of those soldiers are quite sharp and contribute to create a very clear image of the living conditions on the battlefield. Sometimes those details can be overwhelming, what with unusual terms and military jargon, but once the reader gets into the “vibe” of it all, it helps the immersion in the story itself, even when it shows the most unsavory aspects of it all.
It’s a known fact that life on the front is no walk in the park, but what WWI soldiers had to face was particularly awful: those young men had left home driven both by patriotic feelings and the desire to find honor and glory, sometimes even to escape dreary lives, but what they found in reality was worse than a nightmare. The trenches meant dirt and mud, rats and body lice; cold, discomfort and unpalatable rations, and this was just the setting, because the constant shelling, the sorties that meant heavy casualties, the awareness of an enemy always ready to pounce and the horrid consequences of wounds, given the poor level of medical treatment, were enough to sap even the strongest of characters.
All this is rendered with stark realism, from the observation of the soldiers’ reactions during an attack or of their rare moments of quiet, when they find in shared camaraderie and in news from home a way to forget the cruel reality of warfare. Also quite real is the huge divide between the troops and the officers (some of them men as young and inexperienced as their underlings, but denied the luxury of showing fear and uncertainty) because it mirrors the social barriers that were in force at the time.
With these premises, I should have enjoyed the book – or rather books – quite a bit, but unfortunately the rich setting was offset by a characterization that was not as carefully rendered as the background. I’m aware that a plot-driven story must focus more on events than on the figures peopling them, but still I need some fully-fleshed characters to enjoy it: with the exception of Private “Only” Atkins, whose back-story is detailed in some depth, the other individuals are painted with such broad strokes that I found it difficult to care for them. Even the evil officer Jeffries, despite the satanic rituals and bloody trail of corpses behind him, failed to appear like a believable menace, and instead looked more like the proverbial mustache-twirling bad guy than a flesh-and-blood person.
Once the soldiers found themselves transported into an alien world, I would have expected more of a reaction after the initial shock and disbelief had been processed. Instead these men choose to stay in the trenches, carrying on with “business as usual” while waiting for an unlikely rescue: no sense of wonder, no desire to know what had happened to them. Yes, there were forays to procure food and water, but the men showed no inclination to understand the world they had been brought to, or to look beyond the restricted confines of the corpse-riddled section of mud they had been transported with. A further point of puzzlement came from the liberal use of ammunitions and explosives, with no one mentioning the dwindling supplies or the fact that they could not be replenished. Worse still was the lack of perceivable reaction to the heavy losses suffered from the hostile environment: it was a jarring contrast with the realistic portrayal of the soldiers’ behavior in the first part of the novel.
My suspension of disbelief was stretched even thinner at the first contact with the planet’s indigenous dwellers: both the humanoid-looking ones and the insectoid “master race” spoke fluent English, with mannerisms and frames of reference not unlike those of their unexpected visitors. That was indeed my turning point, the factor that brought me to finish at least the first book of the omnibus, The Black Hand Gang, but to go no further: when I lose faith in a story, in its ability to take hold of my imagination and carry it elsewhere, it means that something vital is missing.
I don’t mean to say that this is a bad book, but it does not fulfill my own requirements for a compelling story. At times it reminded me of those ‘50s or ‘60s movies, where characterization and believability were sacrificed in the name of moving the action forward at a fast pace: here some of the narrative choices were quite over the top, especially while picturing the consequences of meetings with the local flora and fauna. Nothing wrong with that either, but not exactly what I look for in a book. Clearly not my “cup of tea”.
My Rating: 5/10