by Jason Alden Bengtson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Reaches / B002WB0YBA
When I reviewed "The Reaches" ABNA entry, I mentioned that I was deeply intrigued by the concept, and that I would like to read more, and author Bengston was kind enough to make the full version of his novel thus far available for me in the Kindle store. After reading through, I can honestly say that the plot and concept is as strong as ever, though in fairness I think the work could benefit from a fresh edit.
"The Reaches" introduces inspector Justin Abelard, a sort of cross between Harry Dresden (of "Dresden Files" fame) and Lucky Starr (Asimov's science fiction themed Sherlock Holmes). When a serial killer starts plying his trade on Mars, preying on members of a powerful local cult, Abelard is called away from his whiskey bottle and back into action as the one man on the planet skilled enough to track down the predator. What his superiors don't know, however, is that Abelard and the killer have something dark and dangerous in common - and this commonality may compromise the case and cost lives before all is said and done.
The plot here is incredibly solid, and the best parts of the novel are undoubtedly watching Abelard and his partner connect the dots in the case, as they closely examine the killer's work (with at least one subtle nod at "Seven") and piece together all the possibilities - government conspiracy? cult activity? crazy AI run amock? alien technology? - behind the insanity they encounter.
If I had to criticize "The Reaches", however, I would say that the story is a bit too slow at times. Each chapter begins and ends with Zen parables (interesting, but never really bearing on the story at large), excerpts from Abelard's journal or 'biography', and entries from a "Terran Encyclopedia" that always feel gently in need of the "lacks scholarship" tags that Wikipedia so often applies to its own entries. (To wit: too many editorial adjectives are used to tell a story when, really, an encyclopedia should have "just the facts". Mentions of, for instance, Abelard should say simply "the inspector", not "the legendary inspector". But now I'm nitpicking.) Especially near the end of the novel, when the pace was really picking up, I found myself skipping quickly over shoe-horned entries that gave autobiographical and technological details over things I no longer cared about in comparison to the main story. And while this is a complaint, it is meant as a complimentary one: the story is too interesting for me to want to deal with interruptions at the end of every chapter.
Whether or not you will enjoy "The Reaches" will depend heavily on what you look for in a science fiction / detective story. The novel has an appealing "retro" feel to it, which probably was what reminded me of my old Asimov books in the first place. "Guns" are, of course, always "hand cannons" here, and of course Abelard prefers his trusty six-shooter earth pistol to the new-fangled things that the kids use nowadays. In true retro feel, every book, movie, or decorating scheme mentioned in the novel will be instantly recognizable to the reader, for no one in the future reads novels written in, say, 2043, when they could be reading "Catcher in the Rye" or something similar again. And at least once the term "pinko" was used un-ironically, which was a welcome piece of comic relief at an otherwise tense moment in the story. Similarly, such "revelations" that crime scenes yield less information as they age, or that the world is going to heck in a hand-basket, or that the "fish" symbol is kind of important to Christians, or even just the wonderfully out-of-place British accent that one agent inexplicably has - all these little details add a sense of age and nostalgia to the work, like the "old fashioned" picture filters that they use on people's portraits at the state fairs.
As a new novel on the scene, and with a very appealingly low price, I definitely recommend checking out "The Reaches", for the retro charm and new ideas that it brings to an old favorite genre. The book isn't without faults and I do think another major edit or two would do some good, but as escapist fiction I enjoyed myself and the main plot is most definitely fresh and entertaining. I'd like to thank Bengston, again, for making the book available for me to read and critique, as I definitely have enjoyed the experience.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through the author.
~ Ana Mardoll
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