Score: 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
This book is another great example of why you don't judge a book by its first 10 to 100 pages like some people do. While it didn't captivate us in the beginning, it got progressively better and more interesting as it went along.
It really grew on us.
The thing about this book is that it's kinda a mishmash of different genres and ideas thrown into a blender and set to “puree.” These genres include sci-fi, modern fantasy, steampunk, medical thrillers, speculative fiction, and even a bit of the “magic school” and magical realism genres (i.e. Harry Potter). No, there's no actual supernatural or paranormal “magic” at the prestigious Langford University, but there are sci-fi aspects of the school, its research, and its favorite sport that reflect a more fantastical or even magical tone akin to something like Hogwarts.
Heck, the favorite sport in this book, koroka, is almost definitely based on quidditch with a little bit of the Hunger Games, American football, and maybe lacrosse mixed in there.
This sport pretty much dominates the first half of this book, for better or for worse. Yes, it's the setting for the book's first big “OMG” moment (think The Dark Knight Rises). Yes, it's impressive world-building. Yes, it helps to introduce us to characters and show us a bit of their personalities, their likes, and dislikes, but it seems a bit inconsequential compared to the main plot involving domestic terrorism, chemical weapons, and turbulent divisions in society. It's when that plot finally hits about half way through that this book really becomes a sci-fi thriller and, thus, an exciting read.
At the very least, koroka helps us to get to know some of the book's main characters. From it, we learn that Collie dislikes sports and outgoing things in general, usually choosing a calmer life with her pet fox. For some reason, some of the other reviews of this book online seem enamored with Collie as some sort of foil to Asher's outgoing, ambitious nature. To us, she is a really standard character who isn't nearly as interesting as someone like Nico or even Autumn, who almost becomes a sort of nemesis to her.
We learn that Roman is a muscle-bound, pig-headed jock who would do anything to win, even browbeating and bullying the main character, Asher, into formulating anabolic steroids and endurance-enhancers for him. However, we also learn a bit of why Roman is pressured to cheat and potentially harm his body just to win a game: his family and their place in society is at stake. Their reputations are on the line.
Hey, there's quite a bit of social commentary in here. You think college and high school athletes don't cheat on their tests and assignments because it's the only hope they think they have of a better life, presumably in some pro sporting league? You think that only the “best of the best” get the “best of the best” jobs and that nepotism and cronyism aren't factors?
Nico holds a relatively higher place in society from some of the other characters. He is one of the Maurinkos—able to afford expensive, advanced robots called “vanguards” to follow him around and do his bidding. Nico really reminded us of “Broken” Matt Hardy. He is pretty much this eccentric madman who lives in a personal fortress accompanied by robots, occasionally having meltdowns and having power trips that pass suspicion on him. Nico has his reasons for being on edge a lot of the time, even despite being rich.
Nico's life is far from perfect. His parents remain “dead” or in stasis, cryogenically frozen in the “catacombs” in a place called “the Citadel.” Nico, like many of the wealthy whose loved ones are “dead,” await new treatments and technologies that can reverse their conditions. It's actually fascinating and a pretty chilling concept.
Could you imagine if this happened in real life? People would be digging up dead loved ones trying to resurrect them with medical technology. Someone would get terminally ill, then we'd freeze them. It's both encouraging (in that we might be able to save lives) and terrifying in that we'd be prolonging their suffering.
We haven't really even talked about the main protagonist yet, but he's a doozy.
Asher Auden is basically a younger (and healthier) Walter White (from Breaking Bad). He is this super smart chemistry prodigy/chemistry wiz. “Chemistry wiz” pretty much sums him up because he's pretty much a wizard, or at least an alchemist. He concocts all sorts of things including hallucinogenic berries, growth hormone, steroids, stimulants, suppressants—the whole nine yards. We wouldn't be surprised if he made a phoenix down at some point (or in a sequel).
Asher is pretty fascinating in that he is a good guy, but he isn't really a good... guy. He's actually a pretty questionable person if not terrible person who both endangers and rescues those around him with his concoctions. For example, we see the impact that his drugs have on people like Roman and Nico—people with strong exteriors but very vulnerable interiors—prone to addiction and irrational thinking. Yeah, he's both a role-model to your kids (in that he encourages scientific wonder and discovery) and a bad example for your kids (in that he misuses his gifts to essentially make recreational drugs). At the same time, his knowledge of chemistry and science saves people and even himself on more than one occasion.
It's wacky people like this that discover penicillin or make MSG.
It's kinda a scary thought, but Asher is usually the kind of person who gets honored with a Nobel Peace Prize in Science. Someone like him might discover a cure for cancer or reverse/alleviate mental illness.
He is said to be “living at the pinnacle of man's greatest achievements,” which is sorta ironic considering the steampunk, pseudo-Victorian-era nature of Asher's world and the fact that mankind hasn't quite peaked yet, at least not technologically. Socially, maybe. Have you seen the news lately?
Lastly, we wanted to commend this book on actually having a somewhat interesting villain, Miasma. She/he is quite a mysterious and ominous force, a sort of terrorist who employs chemical weapons specifically targeting certain groups of people, mainly Maurinkos. She/he is basically Cobra Commander from GI Joe. You get little hints here and there of who this person might turn out to be, and you also get some good red herrings. We were swerved a bit. We didn't expect the big reveal!
You can check this book out on Amazon!