This has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2010, mostly because I’ve been reading and loving The Thrillionth Page, which is the author’s blog, and her creativity mixed with the promising premise is a difficult combination to resist. The only reason I didn’t read this earlier was it kept getting pre-empted by other books I’d promised people I’d read. Luckily this means less of a wait for me for book 2! I’m so relieved that this book did not disappoint.
The Premise: Justine Jones is a hypochondriac who fears vein star syndrome, a condition her mother also feared and actually died of. Despite constant trips to the ER, Justine manages to maintain the semblance of normality – with a job as a clothing store manager and a long term boyfriend named Cubby. Then she meets Sterling Packard, the owner of the Chinese restaurant, Mongolian Delites. Packard is a highcap (a person with special mental powers) with the ability to read a person’s psychology, and he says he can help Justine if she joins his team of Disillusionists. Justine will be able to fight crime by channeling her fear into criminals and breaking them down so that they can be reprogrammed to be productive members of society. In return Justine will release the fear that cripples her. That’s what she’s told anyway.
My Thoughts: The title of this book is perfect. Mind games are explored on several levels, from the mind against the self, to one mind against another, and outwards as highcaps affect a whole city. We begin with Justine, the first person narrator who readily admits she has a psychological problem (unique in urban fantasy in itself). As a hypochondriac, Justine’s fears lead her to lose perspective which affects her work and her relationship with her boyfriend, not to mention pushing Justine closer and closer to a breakdown. When Justine learns how to push those fears into others, the mind game is extended. Not only does Justine have to play a game – pretending to be someone else to get close to her marks to Disillusion them, but then she gets to see them go through the very thing she suffers through on a regular basis. As Justine becomes more involved in this new life, she begins to realize that there is even more games being played. In the same way Justine chooses to mislead and Disillusion people for the Greater Good, it seems that Packard chooses to keep his plans secret from his team. When Justine discovers more of Packard’s secrets, she begins to question everything.
And therein we have what I find delicious in this book. Ambiguity! It’s a real puzzle figuring out the good guys and the bad guys are. Justine wants to do the right thing, but what she’s doing is not within the law. She’s essentially part of a ragtag group of vigilantes who follow a mastermind of dubious reputation. And yet, she is drawn to Packard in a way that is different from other men. Cubby, and another love interest are perfect on the surface for being really normal and fitting Justine’s idea of perfect, but Packard sees Justine in a way that they don’t. Essentially, I think that Packard may look like the bad guy now, but this could change, and this is possibly the first time in a long time I found myself rooting for the “Bad Boy” over the “Nice Guy”. Of course, I could be totally wrong. I really am not sure if Packard is the right choice either. I can see things going very badly depending on his leadership, and I honestly can’t tell which way he leans or whether his idea of right and wrong is something I’d agree with. The uncertainty! It is so good.
There are other things I liked besides the delightful premise and the ambiguity of it’s characters. There is of course the setting. Midcity is a fictional place which seems to nod at comic book tropes. It’s a place where many believe in high capacity humans (highcaps), while many do not. A place where the dashing Chief of Police, Otto Sanchez fights a Brick throwing killer, and the vigilante Disillusionists fight crime secretly in the background. This is all a lovely backdrop, but what I liked first and foremost was Justine. You would think that her anxiety would make her annoying, but I found her to be a strong. logical character who happens to have this fear. On a personal level, anxiety runs in my family, so her description of the ramp up to an attack (especially when she watches her victims go through it) was both true-to-life and strangely comforting. Some of the things people do to reassure themselves they are ok, while simultaneously doing the opposite struck a cord. I also enjoyed the secondary characters who felt fully-fleshed no matter how short their time on the page. From Shelby, a Disillusionist girlfriend, who thinks that happiness is an unattainable illusion, to the Silver Widow, a target of disillusionment with a disturbing intellect mixed with no moral code. All of these things together made for a very strong story.
The only complaint I have (and it’s a small one) was that I wanted to know more. More in particular about what happened to the people Justine disillusioned. Once her part is done, it’s up to another Disillusionist to take over and we don’t really know what happens once Justine moves on to the next target. These are things that may be resolved in the next book however, and I’m eager to find out if they do.
Overall: So good! If you are a fan of UF or of stories with moral ambiguity, do go read this one. I thought this was a fast-paced urban fantasy with a refreshing new premise and a flawed, Everywoman main character who I liked, a plot with plenty of surprises, and plenty of gray areas to keep me turning things over in my head for months. I’m eagerly anticipating the second book, Double Cross (coming out September 28th this year).
Lurv a la Mode – 3 scoops (out of 5)
See Michelle Read – positive review
Ellz Readz – positive review
The Book Smugglers – double 8’s (Excellent – a joint review)
SciFiChick – positive review
Read React Review – positive review
Angieville (and an interview) – positive review
Smexy Books – 5 (out of 5)