BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Hitman Avery Cates searches for the people who infected him with a nanotech plague that threatens to kill the world’s population.
PROS: Fast-paced story with cool tech; well-written action scenes that drive the plot forward with perfect pacing.
CONS: The Avery Cates character comes off as a watered-down version of the one we saw in the previous book; a tacked-on plot hook would have made a great motivator for Cates had it been brought up earlier.
BOTTOM LINE: This will satisfy readers looking for a fast-paced action story.
Last year, Jeff Somers wowed me with The Electric Church, a gritty, noir-ish action-fest that featured hired killer Avery Cates doing his best Rambo impersonation while he and his team went up against brain-stealing cyborgs. Now Avery Cates is back in The Digital Plague. This time around, Cates is caught by an unknown enemy and injected with a highly contagious nanotech virus that causes infected people to die gruesomely within a couple of days – except Cates, of course. His nano-bugs are inert. Cates is just a carrier, meant to be the vehicle of destruction for the rest of the world. In The Digital Plague, Avery sets out to find out who did it to him and why.
With respect to writing style, there’s fortunately not much difference between The Electric Church and The Digital Plague. Somers lines up one intense action scene after another, a relentless volley of hand-to-hand combat scenes and gunfights. Once more his pacing is perfect (which is to say relentless and fast) and every scene draws the story one step closer to its conclusion.
Some old characters return and readers get to meet some new ones, including a small team of infected System Security Force agents – the police who would love to see cop-killer Cates dead. In a sort of tension-filled symbiosis, Cates and the SST cops, forced to go rogue to protect their own lives, partner up with Cates so they are within range of his virus nullification field. Needless to say, tensions are running high in that little band, but that turns out to be a good source of dramatic conflict. From this perspective, The Digital Plague thankfully offers more of the same as the previous novel and fans won’t be disappointed.
The character of Cates, though, is a slightly different matter. In the previous novel, Cates was supposed to be the good guy even though he was a cold-blooded killer. That (mostly) worked for two reasons. First, Cates was calling the shots; he was directing the action towards its bloody stand-off ending. Second, Cates was up against a greater evil that made him seem nice by comparison. In The Digital Plague, Cates isn’t driving the action as much as events are making him react. Instead of a man of action, Cates comes off like a man of reaction. Furthermore, Cates seems to feel remorse more often than before over the lives he has (indirectly) extinguished. Thus his tough, killer persona – and the character overall – is weakened, or at least less sympathetic. I’m still not buying Cates’ “killer with a heart of gold” shtick, but at least before I could forgive the infraction because Cates was kicking ass and taking names. Here, he’s getting his ass kicked and looking for names.
Like the previous novel’s “brain-stealing cyborg” plot hook, The Digital Plague also has a really cool hook – one I cannot divulge without spoilers. Sadly, this cool hook is tacked on at the end. Too bad…it would have been an even greater motive for Cates to get the job done with the motivation he had before. Maybe that angle will be played up in the next installment.
All that said, one does not enter into what is clearly an action/adventure story looking for deep, meaningful Oprah moments. Despite the weakened characterization of Cates and the tacked-on plot hook, it’s the action that successfully carries the book. The Digital Plague won’t disappoint anyone who’s looking for a fast-paced and fun action story.
(Note: For more fun, check out the web site Somers and his publisher Orbit have set up to support the book.)