An old old idea in fantastical fiction is that it might be possible to enhance, or even replace, parts of the human body, giving the subject greater power. Since this often produces an unsettling, or even disturbing result by deviating from the natural appearance and abilities of a typical human being, it also raises the fear that doing such a thing calls into question the human nature of the person so enhanced.
Veil of Shadows: Empire of Bones Saga Volume 2
by Terry Mixon
Yowling Cat Press (April 20, 2019)
ISBN 978-1947376021 [Volume 1-3 omnibus edition]
I was provided a review copy courtesy of the author.
When the mode of the story is one of tragedy, that is often exactly what happens. This, however, is not a tragedy, but rather a romance, by which I mean a sequence of marvelous adventures. Often, in an adventure story, our hero is markedly superior to other men. Faster on the draw, stronger, more clever, more beautiful than their foes. In an otherwise mundane universe, cybernetic enhancements can give a character something very much like superpowers.
An undesired transformation of this sort is a way that we can introduce an element of pathos to the hero’s story, without completely losing what makes an adventure story exciting and wondrous. I think you can dial this element up or down, and end up with stories that feel different even though they are exploring the same concepts. The circumstances of a character’s involuntary transformation shape their character and their place in the universe.
You can go for something only one step removed from horror, as in the Stroggification sequence from Quake 4. Kelsey’s experience in book 1 isn’t far off from this.
Or you can go for something a bit more subtle, like the self-inflicted anguish of Will Smith’s Del Spooner, who is only a monster in his own mind. Since her outward appearance is unchanged, thanks to the medical technology of her society, Kelsey does not have to deal with shock and rejection just because she walked into a room.
Rather, her struggles are those of a victim of a crime. Grief and loss as she tries to cope with the knowledge of what happened to her, plus an entirely reasonable fear that she might hurt someone by accident, as the rescue interrupted the implantation procedure. Her psychological feeling of a loss of control is shadowed by a very physical lack as well.
But, since this is an adventure, Kelsey doesn’t wallow in self-pity like Detective Spooner, but rather deals with her trauma in roughly the same way that Teddy Roosevelt dealt with the death of his mother and first wife: by never leaving herself a quiet moment to think about it. Fortunately for her, the opportunity to pay back her attackers comes quickly.
To heighten the tension, Kelsey and her half-brother Jared, commander of their ill-fated expedition, are drawn into local politics as well. A coup is imminent among their new allies, because why waste a good crisis when you can consolidate your position?
As the series progresses, we learn more and more of what the pre-Fall Empire of Man was like, and the magnitude of the disaster that befell it. This is of course part of the fun, and I like the pacing of revelations in Mixon’s work. A good backstory makes an enjoyable work even more interesting for me, and we get to learn about the world at the same time that Jared and Kelsey do.
The second volume has time for quite a lot of action, since the stage was set so well in book 1. Each new discovery broadens the universe, and the scope of what can be seen and done. Since the scene has been set, now I can look forward to seeing Kelsey drive her enemies before her.
Empire of Bones Saga
Empire of Bones: Book One of the Empire of Bones Saga