Monday, 12 October 2015

Book Review - 'The Forever Watch', by David Ramirez





On a massive generation ship, called the Noah, currently located roughly half-way between a dead Earth and a new habitable planet, Canaan, life continues relatively normally for the last surviving members of the human race - or, at least, as normally as possible. Living out their day-to-day lives in carefully constructed replica cities within carefully maintained artificial habitats, the Noah's residents work and play, they shop, they socialize, and they pass the time however they can. For Hana Dempsey, though, life on the Noah may have lost a bit of its appeal. Coming out of the other end of her designated Breeding Duty (which, for women, involves nine months in a medically induced coma, which only ends when the child is born, and taken away to be raised elsewhere. It's a lot easier for men), Hana finds that her return to regular life isn't quite as simple, and straight-forward, as she was lead to believe it would be. In spite of everything that she had been told about the experience of going through Breeding Duty Hana still finds herself missing the child that she was not permitted to ever meet - but, also due to everything she has been told about Breeding Duty, and what is expected of her afterward, she feels compelled to keep her feelings to herself.

Her work as a City Planner, responsible for overseeing the construction and maintenance of Noah's artificial habitats, offers some distraction - as does the selection of memories and experiences available for purchase on the Nth Web (the Noah's version of the Internet, which all crew-members are connected to thanks to their neural implants). But, neither are entirely satisfying.

A better distraction finally comes in the form of an old friend - Leon Barrens, a cop who had once helped her. Barrens comes to her with the tale of a serial killer, colorfully referred to as 'Mincemeat' due to what is left of the victims, who he believes is currently active on the ship. Barrens' old friend, Callahan, had been investigating this mysterious figure, until he became the latest victim. The official story is that Callahan has simply been Retired - moved to another section of the ship to live out the rest of his life in peace. But, unknown to the ship's authorities, Barrens had also been the first to discover Callahan's body - seeing for himself what had happened to his old friend. So, not only does it seem that there is a serial killer active on board the ship - but, Barrens also has good reason to believe that the killer's activity is also being deliberately hidden. It's for this reason that he comes to Hana - looking to recruit her, and her formidable hacking and programming skills, in order to help him uncover more information. Feeling that she owes Barrens for the help and support that he offered her in the past (and, also clearly being attracted to him), Hana agrees to help.

Of course, there is much more going on here than it seems, at first. As they begin their investigation, they find evidence of 'Mincemeat' killings stretching far back into Noah's past, indicating that it could not possibly be a single killer, along with more evidence of deliberate attempts to keep all of this hidden. The victims are all being officially listed as Retirements - their official records being altered. And, in some extreme cases, the memories of witnesses have been altered to better fit with this carefully constructed illusion. They also find that they are not the only ones to have noticed this bizarre, and unsettling, phenomenon - making contact with an increasing number of fringe-dwelling conspiracy theorists who are all convinced that there is something much more sinister behind these violent killings. What had seemed to be a simple murder investigation, at first, places Hana and Barrens at the center of a vast conspiracy which links back to the fate of Earth, itself, and to the true origins of the ship which carries the last survivors toward their distant destination. Ultimately, what they uncover may even threaten the progress of the human race's desperate mission on board the Noah.

There is a definite sense of the reader being thrown in the deep end with The Forever Watch. This is a strange fictional world that David Ramirez has built for us (much stranger than my brief overview makes it seem, even) - and, the sheer variety of concepts and ideas that are thrown at us could, potentially, be overwhelming. This is mostly down to the tale's central protagonist, Hana Dempsey, who acts as our point of view. Not only is she not the convenient 'outsider' figure that we might have needed to ease our way into this fictional world, but she is actually something of an expert on the inner workings of the Noah. Much of the denseness of the novel is a direct result of this seemingly inconsequential decision. Our point-of-view character already understands the world around her, as do her friends and colleagues - that means that there are limited opportunities for conveniently placed 'info-dump' style exposition to bring the reader up to speed.

It's actually refreshing - and, something that I consider to be one of the novel's strengths. The author shows enough faith in his readers to expect us to be able to keep up without any hand-holding. A veteran reader of science-fiction shouldn't have any trouble putting the pieces together, anyway. Though, it does create the sense that this might make a poor introduction for someone new to the genre.

There are moments where things do tend to drag a bit, though - especially early on. But, it's all a part of laying the ground-work for what comes later. If you find yourself bored by the novel's opening chapters, then the only advice I can really give is to try to push through. It does get significantly more interesting as it progresses. For my own part, I enjoyed the world-building going on here. The Noah is such a uniquely fascinating setting for this story that I probably would have been quite happy spending more time simply learning how it all worked. But, that sort of thing isn't necessarily conducive to good story-telling - and, we get enough to go on, anyway.

One thing I should probably admit, though, is that I have always had a bit of a 'love/hate' relationship with the first-person perspective in fiction - mostly owing to the author's choice of protagonist. Unfortunately, it was the source of some frustration for me, here. I can certainly understand that David Ramirez may simply have wanted to focus on the slower and more thoughtful style of science fiction, rather than 'action' and 'spectacle'. But, if that was the case, than he probably shouldn't have made his other main protagonist a full-blown 'action hero' like Barrens clearly is. And, he certainly shouldn't have made it clear to us that Barrens was off having adventures of his own, which we never really got to see. The fact that I found myself more interested in what Barrens was doing, at certain points in the story, detracted from Hana's character in a way that simply wasn't fair to her. Hana is a great character, well-developed and well-realized, and I definitely liked her.

Of course, that balances out by the end - when Hana, herself, gets to take part in some of the novel's most impressive action. But, still, we're stuck seeing things from her perspective even when nothing much is happening. In the end, I was left thinking that splitting the narrative between the two would probably have been a better choice.

What we have with The Forever Watch is a pair of likable protagonists exploring an interesting story in a fascinating, and well-developed, fictional world. The fact that there may be some pacing issues, as well as some frustration caused by keeping the focus entirely on Hana, might detract from that a little - but, it certainly doesn't spoil the experience. The Forever Watch is a perfectly respectable first novel from a new author who will, hopefully, go on to produce an even more impressive follow-up in the future.

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