Unmasked: Song of Karma Book 2 by Ben Cheah
Unmasked: Song of Karma book 2 [Silver Empire affiliate link] ended up being a very 2020 book. While the events of this book are simply the inevitable consequences of everything that was setup in Hollow City, it feels very much like today with a highly politicized trial of a police officer for a death in the line of duty leading to racially charged riots and civil unrest. Of course, there are also a bunch of people running around with superpowers to spice things up.
Halo City, Adam’s home and the setting for Unmasked, faces a major crisis in the trial of Adam Song. Much like Adam, HC is locked into an endless cycle of violence because of the consequences of past decisions. Also, much like Adam, it cannot alter this destiny because it is unwilling or unable to change itself in order that justice and mercy might kiss. The fundamentally unsatisfactory situation with both rampant lawlessness and harsh policing continues simply because the people in charge prefer it that way.
Political power in Halo City comes not from the consent of the governed, nor from technocratic managerial excellence. Rather, it accrues to anyone who can deliver the goods. Accordingly, we see hints that bribery, corruption, and blackmail are the hidden springs that move events within HC. In the past, this all might have even been broadly acceptable to the people at large, as machine politics was often effective at delivering jobs for the boys and protection from rivals. However, decades later, the system has ossified into racial and ethnic enclaves beholden to businesses whose primary advantage is how well-connected they are.
Something has to change, but change would mean a loss of power and influence for people who are very much used to the status quo, and have the ability to stave off the reckoning, at least for a little while longer. So nothing ever changes. Forget it Adam, this is Halo City.
Adam, in the other hand, is portrayed more sympathetically than his city and its masters. However, Adam is nonetheless at the beginning of this book precisely what he is accused of being: a vigilante who solves his problems by killing them first. The dark humor of the situation is that Adam, dutiful as he is, would likely not have crossed the line that he did had his employers backed him up. He was, after all, following their rules and doing their bidding when he killed Emmanuel Ruiz and Sofia Vega in the course of serving a warrant.
Adam wouldn’t even have the money to pay for his lawyer except that he relieved some mid-level criminals of their ill-gotten gains in the last book. Even when he goes rogue, he ends up doing much the same things he did before: shaking down small-fry for information, seizing assets from those unlucky enough to fall in his grasp, and killing those who threaten him or those he cares about. The difference is that once Adam is out on his own, he reverts to his natural sense of justice, rather than the rules of the system in which he is embedded.
This tension in Adam’s life, between procedural justice of fair play and following the rules, and a sense of equity or just deserts, is both important and utterly unresolved. This theme is heightened in the middle section of the book, when Adam spends a great deal of time protecting a Buddhist monk he knows from kidnapping. I don’t know enough of Buddhism to know whether Cheah plays this part well, but I respect his portrayal of Catholics here and elsewhere, so I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Adam Song’s unfailing sense of justice drives him to do what he does, but it also will not let him rest. The doctrine of karma says that violence is repaid with violence, no matter what its justification. Thus, Adam has no rest, as his nature cannot allow him to sit by when violence is done to others, which brings on endless cycles of strife. While in some ways Adam wants freedom from this cycle, he cannot really act otherwise.
Something we didn’t really get in book 1 is a sense of how the various books in the Heroes Unleashed work together. Halo City is embedded in a world where Primes are a feature of everyday life. With book 2, we see how events in the broader world begin to affect what happens to Adam, and hints of a grander story lurking in the background. Adam is not as alone in his struggles as he probably feels himself to be.
What that means, I suppose we shall see.
I received a copy of this book for free from the publisher. Silver Empire features a book club [Silver Empire affiliate link], with monthly and annual plans, that allows one book each month per the plan, and discounts on additional volumes.
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