Ostensibly, Strings on a Shadow Puppet by TL Evans is the story of a small, highly-skilled naval intelligence team that sets out to stop the most brutal terrorist cell the Sophyan Empire has ever faced. Sounds good, doesn’t it? And it is.
On this level the book succeeds at telling an engrossing tale that keeps you eagerly flipping pages to the end. But oh, is the story so much more. With the book title in mind and the fact that the story focuses on a military intelligence team, you’d be right to suspect there is a great deal more to it. These aren’t just soldiers sent to take down the baddies, though they do see a good bit of action, this is about intelligence gathering and digging beneath the surface to find out who is pulling the strings behind the obvious bad guy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start with Alex, newly assigned commanding officer of the HMS Hunter, a small but stealthy space ship. He’s a man with a murky past to overcome, wrongs to set right, and the connections to give him the chance to do so. He is a mandellan, a sort of genetically superior elite, in an empire divided by different political factions, and is an outsider when he takes command of the Hunter. He is not the only new crew member and the first part of the book introduces the seven person crew as they come together as a team. The author explores the characters and their relationships with a deft hand and a tight focus that drives the story, and its many layers, forward. Although the story is told from an omniscient point of view, we get into the characters’ heads and come to respect them as they uneasily come to respect each other.
Also among the crew are, Samantha, the talented mandellan navigator who resists the hierarchy and her place in it while pursuing her own goals; Sinner, the Chief technical officer with a host of implants that allow him to interface expertly with the ship; and Fran, the newbie engineer with a talent for hacking and an aversion for any sort of implants at all. As we get to know the characters we get to know the world they live in and the political, personal, and life or death stakes. In the rest of the book we follow them as they dig for the truth. Their journey takes them through data libraries looking for data that is and isn’t there, to surveillance and undercover operations on a dangerous border world, and lands them in a dangerous battle with more at stake than just their lives. To say more would be spoilery, so on to the layers.
Politics. This layer thoughtfully questions notions of social class, democracy, and freedom, in a way that is, frankly, very timely. As the world is learning, even with democracy there are winners and losers. How do you deal with being a loser? Do you walk away or fight? Do you fight inside the system or outside of it?
Transhumanism. If technology advancements continue to focus on personal convenience (smart phones, ipads, google glasses, cars that listen and anticipate your needs) and culture continues to reward individual achievement, it is logical to assume we humans will merge technology into our bodies. Most of the Hunter’s crew have implants or enhancements to improve performance and increase efficiency. But what are the consequences of this technology in the wider population? We see a class of intellectuals who work at menial jobs while their minds are free to join networks of others who share their interests. We see junkies who become lost in virtual worlds until they forget to eat and die. We see inside the mind of one of the young terrorists and learn much of his loyalty was formed when the terrorists rescued him from that existence. But are the people he follows as loyal to the cause as he believes? I love thinking about this stuff!
Espionage. We all know spying is part of our world today, but what are the costs to the people living with the reality of it day in and day out. What drives them? And what costs do they pay? Do we all pay? For me, this is where the author exceeds my expectations of the genre. These days I mostly read romance because it is the characters that interest and engages me in a story. In a non-romance SciFi like String on a Shadow Puppet, I often find the narrative style distances me from the characters. Not the case here. I’ll be thinking about these characters for a long, long time.
Genre: Military/Espionage SciFi
Publication date: Feb 14, 2013 (Print)
Primary format: E-book (Available Now)
Available from Amazon.com