REVIEW SUMMARY: Complex plotting and characters expertly handled.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Former Canadian Special Forces operative Jenny Casey hunts for a murderer and the source of the street drug Hammer.
PROS: Fast-paced; immersive; page-turning; 3D characters.
CONS: Characters motives questionable at times; distracting use of French;
BOTTOM LINE: A worthwhile and accessible read resting midway between hard and soft sf.
Hammered is Elizabeth Bear’s first novel and the first in a series. It follows the story of former Canadian Special Forces operative Jenny Casey, wounded years before in a near-fatal accident that cost a left arm. Thanks to technology, she not only has a bionic arm replacement, but she’s enhanced in other ways as well (optic sensors and such). She’s not Superwoman, though. She’s nearing fifty years of age and she’s breaking down.
The government, specifically Jenny’s former military boss Colonel Fred Valens, M.D., wants to upgrade her hardware – and recruit her for a new “Secret Project”. But Jenny’s been hiding from them in the crime-ridden streets of New Harford, Connecticut where she has forged uneasy relationships with such varied characters as Detective Mitch Koslowski (who wants Jenny’s help to find his partner’s/lover’s killer) and a gangster with metal teeth named Razorface (who wants Jenny’s help tracking the source of the military-created street drug Hammer). Ultimately, Jenny is pulled into the world of corporate espionage as she tries to track down Mitch’s perp and find the source of the Hammer drug that is killing the people of her hometown.
If this sounds like a lot of plot, you’re right, it is. There’s a very rich story being played out on the pages of Hammered. To her credit, first time novelist Elizabeth Bear not only manages to juggle it all, she manages to do so with while creating a fast-moving story with page-turning action and emotionally complex characters.
This last part is important. The characters are very well drawn partly because they are flawed, and that adds much to the enjoyment of the story. While I found motives to be a bit under-explained at times, the characters still seemed real. One gripe: I just didn’t get why Mitch the cop would team up with Razorface, even if he was the gangster with the heart of gold. On the plus side, their separate story thread was pretty darn exciting all the way up to the nail-biting confrontation with Jenny’s sister-turned-assassin, Barbara. Not a nice woman, Barbara.
Even other not-so-minor characters seemed real, as did their relationships with Jenny. Once working for Valens again, Jenny gets reacquainted with her rescuer and secret-crush, Gabe Castaign. And then there’s Elspeth Dunsany, an AI expert recently released from jail, thanks to Valens who not only put her there but now wants to use her talents for his “Secret Project”. Finally, and definitely not least of all, the self-named artificial intelligence Richard Feynman plays a major role as he evolves from a potential threat to a Daneel Olivaw-like overseer. Quite cool.
Overall, the prose is tight and the author uses an effective technique of revealing an eye-raising plot detail in one chapter and then explaining and expanding on it in the next. In this way, I was pulled along through the story (as opposed to me pushing myself through the story). The quasi-Cyberpunk setting was also neat, replete with the standard Bad Corporation, evil leader (Valens), dark and gritty mood, and even a little virtual reality delicately thrown in. The background story of the Candian/Chinese space race (seems the U.S. is no longer a contender in 2062) failed to get my interest even though it was necessary to explain some of the machinations. Also, one thing I could have done without was the occasional use of French. While it added Canadian flavor to the setting, my lack of a French vocabulary made me feel like I was missing out on something; at the very least it was distracting.
The “Secret Project” when finally revealed, is a nice treat for sf fans who might otherwise find this halfway-between-soft-and-hard sf combo a little on the soft side. For sure, by book’s end, the stage is set for a harder story and a lot more action and intrigue. (The Jenny Casey series continues with the already-released Scardown and Worldwired.)