BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The chase is on from the very first pages when an ex-military operative stumbles across a young girl and the plot orchestrated by some very powerful people to capture her.
PROS: Fast-paced action; builds genuine moments of suspense; it’s an engrossing page-turner.
CONS: Some the thriller aspects were a little harder to swallow than the science fictional aspects.
BOTTOM LINE: A worthwhile thrill ride with promise for even better things to come.
One of the things I love about speculative fiction is its versatility. Science fiction stories aren’t always about spaceships and fantasy stories aren’t always about dragons. Oftentimes, stories are written from a different angle entirely even though they include speculative elements layered on top of them. Or at least, that’s how they are marketed.
That was the case with Patrick Lee’s Tangent books. The series (comprised of The Breach, Ghost Country, and Deep Sky and featuring a protagonist named Travis Chase) was marketed as a thriller. The speculative elements were, in fact, left out of the first book’s description. I would have missed the series entirely if it weren’t for the intimation on the cover of the sequel that it did include speculative elements. That would have been too bad, because that series was quite excellent.
Lee’s new series, which begins with Runner, seems to be using the same marketing strategy. There’s nothing in the book’s description that says “science fiction” — it’s pitched as a pure thriller — yet there are integral elements to the story that are overwhelmingly science fictional in nature. Therein lies the versatility of science fiction. You can read a science fiction story that’s both at the same time.
Runner is about Sam Dryden, an ex-military operative who retired after several years as an elite soldier on off-the-books black ops missions and after suffering the loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident. Sam literally runs into an 11 year-old girl named Rachel who is being chased by armed men. Sam’s instinct is to protect her, which he does by leveraging his military training. Sam soon becomes part of the hunt and it quickly becomes apparent that the hunters are a far cry from garden variety criminals. The resources at their command point to a much larger entity.
What is it they are after? Why could they possibly be hunting a young girl? One clue is that Rachel has no memories prior to the two months she was in captivity. That’s where the speculative elements begin to appear. It’s difficult to discuss the details beyond this point since they are part of several plot twists and surprises that the book provides. Suffice it to say that Rachel has special abilities that make her a very important asset to some very powerful people. There’s a bit of world building here, too, that will hopefully come into play later in the series.
Although it contains tangible science fictional elements, Runner is a book that’s written as a pure thriller. Yet when I begin to separate the thriller aspects from the science fictional aspects of the book, an interesting observation is made. Oddly, it isn’t the science fictional parts of the story that push the limits of belief, it was the real-world thriller aspects. Supernatural abilities? I can buy that. One amazingly close call after another? That’s somehow a little harder for me to accept. Why? As a regular reader of speculative fiction, I’m conditioned to be more accepting towards the fantastic elements; but when I read a present day thriller, I’m dubious of things outside the norm. To be clear, there was no point where any of those dramatic moments seemed impossible, just noticeably unlikely. That seems like an odd claim for a speculative fiction fan to make, but there it is.
All that said, as a combined science fiction thriller, Runner succeeds wonderfully; it’s got non-stop thrills and action, and enough science fictional elements to make readers wonder ask “what if?”. Lee does a superb job in building suspense from even the most seemingly innocent moments. Regardless of whatever genre labels you want to hang on it, this is how page-turning books are written.