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Fast-paced, futuristic thriller shows promise

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/4/2016 (477 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Winnipeg author Gerald Brandt may be a newbie but he’s hit the ground running. His publisher already has plans to follow up this just-released debut novel with its sequel before the end of the year.

This could bode well for the fledgling author, assuming sales validate the publisher’s show of confidence. They just might: the novel displays the usual roughness of a first effort but is not without promise.

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The Courier and its followup are both advertised as part of the San Angeles series — so named because the setting is a 22nd century, seven-level megacity stretching from present-day Los Angeles to San Francisco. Like the majority of her fellow citizens in the corporate-owned city, Kris, a 16-year-old motorbike messenger, has grown up in the lower-level slums and never seen the sun. She scrabbles daily to make enough to eat and pay rent on a meagre rental space.

The setting is well-realized, easily the most thoroughly worked-out and sensate aspect of the novel. In fine cyberpunk tradition, government and police forces have become ever more obsolete in a dingy future. Out-of-control corruption and private-sector greed have won out. The big companies are essentially crime syndicates, challenged only by corporate rivals. Side effects include extreme inequity and a complete absence of any kind of social safety net, democratic process, or protection for individual rights.

Kris has experienced this way of the world all her life, scraping by and avoiding predators of every shape, size, and stripe. One might expect a certain fatalism when she’s randomly selected to deliver a package and set up to be casually murdered as a pawn in some opaque and confusing chess move of the corporate wars. The surprise to everyone is she manages to evade the clutches of security forces and hired killers for days on end.

Brandt makes earnest efforts at character development, especially with his first-person protagonist and narrator, but they come off forced and inorganic. A romantic subplot, occurring oddly late in the story, shows the new writer is still a bit awkward and clumsy in handling character motivations or dialogue for either sex.

Kris is basically a good choice of protagonist, however — vulnerable but capable, easy to root for — and will hopefully improve as a character in the finer details as Brandt grows as a writer. Meanwhile, the almost thriller-like pacing means these weaker sections are short enough not to worry about overmuch.

The pacing is pretty much spot on. If the book is read the way it is written, enthusiastically and rapidly, it’s a roller-coaster ride. The somewhat confused plotting and clumsy character moments blur in the moment-by-moment flight from death Kris is launched into in the first chapters. Some science-fiction novels are philosophical exercises but this isn’t Brandt’s focus, at least at this point in the series.

This story, on the blurry edge between cyberpunk and techno-thriller, is more easily compared to film favourites of the action sci-fi genre than any landmark works in speculative-fiction literature. Pick any number of recent or older titles in the milieu: In Time with Justin Timberlake; Paycheck with Ben Affleck; Johnny Mnemonic with Keanu Reeves. They’re fun, visually on-point, sometimes clever, but not cerebral.

Brandt doesn’t break any new ground, but for the right reader, The Courier may be just what the doctor ordered. It is at moments charming and satisfying, and, indeed, a promising start for a new Winnipeg writer in a genre with very Canadian roots.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.

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