BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Shapeshifting private detective Jeremy Stake is hired to find the rare, bioengineered doll of his rich client’s daughter in the dark, gritty setting of Punktown, a futuristic metropolis of alien creatures, mutants and inter-dimensional travel.
PROS: Imaginative setting that you’ll want more of; consistent and enjoyable pacing; awesome second half; successful juggling of multiple story lines.
CONS: Some plot turns were predictable.
BOTTOM LINE: Come for the plot, stay for the setting.
Jeffrey Thomas’ imaginative Punktown universe first caught my undivided attention when I read his intriguing short story “In His Sights” which features Jeremy Stake, a Blue War veteran afflicted with an uncontrollable shapeshifting ability triggered by staring at someone for too long. Stake is also the central character of the latest Punktown novel, Deadstock, and it delivers the goods.
Punktown is a dark, gritty, futuristic metropolis on the planet Oasis. Private detective Jeremy Stake is hired by rich businessman John Fukuda, whose company produces bio-engineered life forms generally referred to as deadstock, as in “opposite of livestock”, because of some of the real-world uses of such technology; think headless cattle, efficiently grown to produce only edible parts. Fukuda produced a lifelike doll for his daughter Yuki’s amusement (bioengineered dolls are all the rage with kids these days in Punktown) but the doll has disappeared. Stake has been hired to find him. His already unglamorous task soon turns weird and deadly, and that’s before Yuki’s doll begins growing larger and becoming dangerous.
Meanwhile, in a derelict apartment complex named Steward Gardens, a bunch of street gang kids are trapped and under attack from the army of faceless life forms that were meant to be servants to the affluent residents, had it ever been completed…and by “street gang kids” I mean both humans and aliens, for Punktown is a city populated by many wonderful and weird creatures besides humans.
These seemingly disparate storylines are obviously related – the fun of the first half of the book was following each one, guessing how they might intersect and seeing where they actually do lead. Some plot turns are surprises, others not so much. Stake’s job initially entails snooping around Yuki’s school and Fukuda’s business dealings, looking for suspects in the theft of Yuki’s doll, a highly expensive creation that leverages the latest tech. Several suspects emerge, including a business rival who uses blue camouflage-skinned clones (originally created to be soldiers in the war) as enforcers. There is even some suspicion around one of Fukuda’s business acquisitions which was found to be creating an army of creatures for a cult that worships evil, Cthulhu-like creatures from another dimension. (Alternate dimension are one of the many facets of Punktown that make it so appealing.)
There are other storylines mixed in as well, expertly shuffled between the main ones. Stake starts a relationship with a counselor at Yuki’s school, for example. Also, he has yet to resolve a relationship he had with a Ha Jiin beauty – who was also his wartime enemy – named Thi Gonh. As hoped for when I read “In His Sights”, Deadstock does indeed provide the backstory on Thi Gonh through some dramatic flashbacks. These other storylines add some welcome complexity to a protagonist who could have easily been written as some macho stock character but is instead realistic, a victim of his own mutation. Of course, having “confused flesh”, in which he assumes the appearance of someone he stares at for too long, turns out to be a handy ability for a private detective, especially when he carries around a set of stock faces in his wrist computer from which he drums up a new disguise – perfect for gaining otherwise forbidden access.
As enjoyable as the book was during the first half, the story slips into overdrive near the middle, as the storylines begin to converge. This was when the book changed from being good to being one that was hard to put down. Attribute that to Thomas’ slick prose and enjoyably consistent pacing. While the book plays with the themes of identity and destiny – from Stake’s ever-changing features, to the clones’ place in society, to the doll’s ever-expanding sense of awareness and power – it will be the blend of science fiction, horror, mystery and action that will appeal to most readers. The suspenseful scenes played out at Steward Gardens, for example, were reminiscent of a well-done futuristic horror movie complete with violence and gore. More good news: characters are expendable. And let’s not forget the vast array of aliens, mutants and other creatures that adorn the streets of Punktown. Among many others, there’s the super-strong Big Meat, his shorter, ammonia-spewing cohort, Tiny Meat, and the amorphous blob that walks in a spider-like mechanical body.
Taken together, all these elements add up to a refreshing and fun novel. I get the impression that the author was having fun too. At one point, two in-story books named as references for the Cthulhu-like Ugghiutu cult (Monstrocity and Everybody Scream!) are titles of the author’s own novels.