A guest review by LadyM
Review summary: Unexpectedly lighthearted futuristic story and solid beginning of promising new series
Blurb: In a future where the United States has split along party lines, Agent Matt Tennimore’s job is to get people out of the Confederated Red States, whether they’re captured special ops agents from his own country or gay CRS citizens who’ve petitioned for asylum. He never expected to have to retrieve his high school crush, aka the guy who ostracized him for being gay.
Rescuing James Ayala isn’t going to be easy: he’s crawling with tracking nanos and has a cybernetic brain implant that’s granted him psychic power he isn’t sure how to control. That’s the good news. The bad? The implant is compromising James’s mental stability.
So they’re on the run, avoiding surveillance by AI aircraft and hiding from enemy militia. Then James confesses he tormented Matt in high school because James wanted him. Matt can’t resist the temptation James offers, but he wants so much more than sex, assuming they ever make it home alive. Is James really a good bet when he’s got a ticking time bomb in his brain and there’s the question of how much he’s actually changed?
I chose to review this novel because: a) I’ve read the author’s story written for the Hot Summer Days anthology and liked it a lot (it has one of the funniest exchanges I’ve read this year, especially for the readers of this genre); b) I enjoy science fiction in all its incarnation; c) It’s always a pleasure to read a writer’s first longer work and see where they can go from there. 18% Gray is ambitious novel as well as an obvious beginning of the new series. There is no doubt that Ms. Tenino is a talented author and that I’ll be reading her next book (which, judging by all the comments to Josh Lanyon’s last post is not an easy feat). She also has a great sense of humor, which I personally prefer in writers. The book is not without the problems though: some easily solved and some which could, in my opinion, use a firmer editing hand.
One of the reasons I enjoy futuristic stories so much is the fact that all the authors basically start from the same point – our current world – and build on it to create unique and original visions of our future. The author used three main themes to build upon: technological advancement, environmental changes and division between “red” and “blue” States (for international readers like myself – Google is your friend). The result is a mixture sufficiently new to keep the reader’s interest and familiar enough not to become too alien and distract from the main storyline: on one side, we have interesting gadgets (I think the crotch rocket will be a star of many future puns, especially in this particular group of readers), AIs, organ growing, AIDS vaccine, on the other – significant climate changes, poverty (especially in the Red States), political and ideological disintegration of the U.S. into Red (conservative, isolationist) and Blue States (liberal, maintaining to a point the political structure of the previous country). The things are not completely black and white though, which I liked. While the Red States clearly play the negative role in this story, the Blue States aren’t exactly white as snow: there are shadowy forces on the work there, pulling protagonists’ strings (experimenting on James included), whose true intents weren’t revealed in this novel.
Matt Tennimore is a member of paramilitary organization whose job is to extract the people from the Red States. He gets a new assignment: to extract First Lieutenant James Ayala, a man he had a crush on in high school, after he was captured and “re-educated” by the Red States as the carrier of “gay” gene. Their high school friendship ended when James discovered Matt was gay. And isn’t it just a poetic justice that Matt is the one to rescue him? Matt is an experienced extraction agent, but things will not be simple this time, since James carries an implant meant to enable him to feel other people’s intentions. During his imprisonment, the implant was discovered by the Red and now his abilities are evolving – unpredictably so.
Usually, we expect the author to give us characters’ full (or nearly full) history along with the progression of their relationship. But, how to do that when your characters are on the run through the entire novel? Do you interrupt the story foran info-dump? Although I can see how this could bother some readers, in my opinion, the author made the right decision when she decided to concentrate on development of Matt’s and Jason’s relationship and give us only the necessary information about their pasts. I liked these two men a lot: Matt with his juvenile sense of humor (considering his job, it was difficult to remember sometimes how young he really was), courage and big heart and James, a big, tough, loyal soldier with all his insecurities. Although it’s clear from the beginning that the men would act on their attraction, the circumstances are hardly ideal for the budding romance – they both have baggage, they are running for their lives, some of Jason’s new abilities are quite intrusive and, of course, they are men, so there are a few bumps on the road. The men were both sweet and I enjoyed their teasing and humor, not to mention the hot sex scenes (although I thought one of them happened in the most inappropriate moment). Shortly, I cared for them and wanted them to find some peace and each other.
By the very nature of this story, secondary characters couldn’t have much on-page time, but that doesn’t mean some of them weren’t memorable. Matt’s grandfathers Lance and Sid were a hoot, as were his ball-busting Granma Anais and nuns Pearl and Carmella (all ex-military or Navy SEALs). But, believe it or not, the spotlight was stolen by Miz Horse (yes, she’s a horse!) who was ingenious creation and I was happy to see the author gave her a chance to be reunited with the guys. I have to say though that I had a personal, passionate hate for Sister Benigna, a nymphomaniac nun. Her character was intended to be humorous and I bet some readers will love her, but I disliked her so much that I wanted her to become the casualty of war.
As much as I liked the novel, I did have a few problems. In the forefront was the use of gazillion acronyms which made the reading difficult and whose number should have been considerably cut down. After a while, my eyes started glazing over whenever they appeared and I simply started skipping them completely so I wouldn’t lose the thread of the story. The second thing that bothered me slightly was the lack of make-or-break situations. Don’t get me wrong, there were many excitements for the protagonists along the way, but, when all was said and done, all their problems were solved relatively easy either by the use of technology or by Jason’s new abilities (which just happened to evolve in appropriate time). Additionally, there was no true antagonist(s) in the story to give a face to the enemy (think Agent Smith in The Matrix or Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List) and up the ante for Matt and Jason. Kandy Melore could have been that character, but she proved inconsequential. That was probably the biggest flaw of the book for me personally. And, finally, although the entire story was told in alternating third person limited point-of-view, the author decided to introduce two other POVs at the very end of the novel – those of Laslo and Logan, the guys who will star in the next book. This was completely unnecessary and, in my opinion, interrupted the resolution of this novel.
18% Gray is a solid first novel, with two likable protagonists. Although it touches some serious themes, the overall tone of the novel is lighthearted (there are some truly humorous moments) and I think most of the readers will enjoy it. If you want to read more about Matt and Jason, the author also published Happy Birthday to Me, a sexy little sequel set after this book. I’m looking forward to Ms. Tenino’s new stories. Until she publishes them, this one is recommended.