REVIEW SUMMARY: It disturbs me to say that I liked so many bad people in this book.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gunner Avery Cates is hired to execute the high priest of The Electric Church, a group of brain-stealing cyborgs (yes, you read that right) who aim to preach about eternal enlightenment.
PROS: Excellent pacing; well-written action sequences; fun characters; dark setting.
CONS: There’s something remarkably unsettling about passionately rooting for the killers and thieves.
BOTTOM LINE: A first-rate piece of science fiction entertainment.
The majority of the characters in Jeff Somers’ The Electric Church are not people you would want to meet in real life. They are murderers, thieves and generally shady characters. Even the police are nothing more than crooked cops. Blame it on the near-future dystopian New-York setting, a post-Unification society that has done the opposite; it has separated its citizens into the civilized and the uncivilized. Or blame it on the fact that the book only focuses on the uncivilized. Either way, you’re unlikely to a more disreputable group of people who are supposed to be the good guys.
Leading the pack is Avery Cates, a hit-man (or “Gunner”) who’s pushing 30 years. That’s old in his line of work. A botched hit leaves Cates on the run from the elite cops known as the System Security Force. These guys are tough cookies. They’re augmented to deliver swift justice to suit their whims and you simply don’t want to be messing with them. The only ones tougher than the SST are the Monks of the Electric Church, a group of cyborgs who run a murderous recruitment program involving a new cyborg body, a fresh human brain recently relieved of its former housing, and hardware to take away the brain’s control of the body. The bad news for Cates is that the only way to clear his name with the bullying, all-too-powerful SSF is by taking a job to murder the High Priest of the Electric Church. And, in a nice turn of events, the one offering the job is the director of the SSF himself.
This premise nicely suits the dark and gritty future setting of The Electric Church, but more importantly it provides a swift vehicle for action and suspense. The major point that stands out about The Electric Church is its excellent pacing. Each of the book’s thirty-six chapters involves some significant advancement of plot and Somers’ clean delivery of the story means there’s no slowing down. Somers doesn’t quite achieve the noir effect he is shooting for – the prose comes across a little too forced in that aspect – but it’s hardly a detriment when the story keeps moving the way it does.
A story, they say, is only as good as its characters and here I’m a bit conflicted. To be clear, I loved the characters. They are realistic, fun and come with distinct personalities. The confusing part is that they are simply not good people. I had to keep reminding myself that Cates was a cold-blooded killer. Usually the reminder was yet another scene in which he snuffs the life out of some poor bastard just doing his job and/or innocently getting in his way. Cates repeatedly voiced his “code of honor” but I’m not sure I’m buying the killer-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype, if there is one. That said, from a pure entertainment perspective, I couldn’t help but root for Cates as he hops between life-threatening situations with the SSF and Monks. The unrestricted power of the SSH and the murderous recruitment tactics of the Monks (enlightenment indeed!) seems to makes Cates the lesser of all other evils.
Cates employs a small handful of other cool and well-fleshed-out characters. He forms his team of crooks in scenes that I liken to the opening sequence of the Mission: Impossible television series. His main man is Kev Gatz who possesses the psionic power of persuasion. There’s also Ty Keith, a tech guru who can work wonders and who humorously refers to himself in the third person. There is also a pair of female twins named Milton and Tanner who are the transport experts. There is one other team member whose identity I will not divulge here because it’s a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Cates’ team, who are not invincible by any means, has their work cut out for them: the high priest of the Electric Church has an army of armed cyborgs protecting him.
If the author is trying to give some higher meaning to Cates’ cause, it’s through Cates’ realization that he’s not just fighting the Electric Church; he’s fighting “the System” that has made life so difficult for so many underprivileged citizens. At least I think that’s the higher meaning. If so, that message has fallen on ears gloriously deafened between some gory-but-effective scenes of nonstop gunfire and the adrenaline rush of its high-speed plot. The fact that this is the author’s first novel makes The Electric Church all the more a first-rate piece of science fiction entertainment.