Kicking off my Sci-Fi Month reviews, we have Refraction, by Christopher Hinz. This gooey sci-fi thriller is published by Angry Robot, and this fair and unbiased review was provided with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received.
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As a hero, Aiden Manchester is somewhat unconventional. Although he has special powers, they don’t seem all that special; in fact, they’re more of an inconvenience and an embarrassment than anything. Aiden occasionally manifests “chunkies” while he sleeps, floating brown blobs of matter that tend to stick to and ruin whatever they land on. There seems to be no practical application for them, and it’s an affliction that has plagued him for much of his life. However, a mysterious letter (always the best kind) from his deceased father sets him on a trail of discovery and revelation, as he learns he was part of a mysterious experiment as a baby. Before long, he’s involved in a desperate race against time to stop one of his fellow test subjects – or “Quiver Kids” – achieving his nefarious aims.
Hinz sets out his weird stall nice and early, then. There aren’t many heroes out there with such apparently useless powers as Aiden – maybe that kid who changes channels by blinking in X2 comes close – and in a world where we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to super heroic media, one can’t help but feel a little sorry for him from the off. No super strength or flight for Aiden, just embarrassing night time accidents that result in brown orbs of sticky goo. Things don’t improve for his self esteem as he learns of the abilities of his fellow Quiver Kids either, all of which seem much more useful and interesting than his. As a hero, Aiden is a character it’s easy to sympathise with. He’s not normal, per se, but the thing that makes him special doesn’t make him as special as some of the other characters.
Aiden’s affliction has resulted in more than a few problems for him too – he was forced to drop out of college after his chunkies started appearing in dorms, and romantic attachments are basically impossible for him. He finds it difficult to travel on planes, for fear that a chunkie will manifest above an engine and cripple it. It really feels like consideration has been given to the knock-on effects of Aiden’s peculiar ability on his life, without dwelling on them so much that it drags. Because that’s certainly one thing Refraction does not do – it never drags. It manages to be fast paced but never breathlessly so, with enough little bits of development between the more intense parts to raise the stakes a little higher each time.
These developments, often seen through the eyes of the villain, Michael, nicely set up what’s to come, as well as giving us more backstory on the original experiment and those involved. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Michael, in fact – with the relatively limited amount of time we spend with him, it’s difficult to see him as more than just evil for the sake of evil. He doesn’t feel as nuanced as Aiden does, but his villainy is well established and reinforced. Repeated references to his propensity for rape, for example, whilst not especially subtle, will definitely make you absolutely despise him. Under his employ are a number of mercenaries, led by cold blooded killer Nobe. Nobe’s motivations are easier to grasp than Michael’s – money, essentially – which makes him a little more grounded, and scenes featuring him really convey his deadliness and ruthlessness well.
Standing alongside Aiden as he attempts to outwit Michael and his mercenaries is Deke Keats, an analyst from the General Accounting Office. This probably doesn’t make him sound like the most exciting character, but actually there’s much more to him than that role implies. Keats is considerably more grizzled than you might assume from his job description; as a former soldier, he can more than hold his own in hand to hand combat and gunfights, and has a network of retired comrades he can call on in a pinch. He’s able to strategize effectively too, which really comes into its own later on in the book, in the action-packed final third. As well as Keats, fellow Quiver Kid Jessie is also along for the ride. Jessie’s beauty is remarked upon by many of the male characters, and whilst this does feel a bit sleazy, it does ultimately (kind of) serve a purpose. It’s fair to say it’s not the most progressive kind of female representation, but at least some of the other characters get their comeuppance for underestimating her.
When Refraction isn’t flying along with gunfights and violence, Hinz drops in all kinds of revelations. These range from secrets about the original experiment to other, more personal matters, but they are always interesting, and in many cases extremely satisfying. There are mysteries aplenty, and you will doubtless be left with questions by the end, but there are plenty of threads that are neatly gathered up and questions answered. There is a really nice feeling of things just fitting together, of a well laid plot where everything intersects neatly.
With an action movie feel and a dash of the weird, Refraction is an entertaining read with some interesting ideas. I’m hopeful that we’ll get to see more of the mysteries it sets up unfold in future books. It was released on the 10th of November and published by Angry Robot books – you can order your copy through this affiliate link.