This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Hey there. I’m here to talk to you today about Ache, by Kelvin Myers, aka. Levi Jacobs (I like him already, he has at least a couple of alternate names). Ache is a creepy and easy-to-read allegory and warning about social media and other technology dependence, with a good dose of zombie apocalypse thrown in.
I started reading this book while waiting in line for my second corona vaccine shot, and then while sitting in the waiting room after my shot to see if I exploded or turned into a 5G signal tower or whatever the vaccine is supposed to do to you. I didn’t – I’m fine, really I am, hold your phone up next to me and see – but just for context, this was a memorable book for me before I even really started. And the story’s subject matter, accordingly, took on even greater significance.
Ache started out a little rocky, but it’s difficult to put my finger on precisely how it was challenging. The introduction of Lance, and then Mari, in respective point of view chapters (more about this later), was … okay, Lance was heavily glazed with the tough guy cyberpunk noir brush, and Mari was all about prettiness and the sexy schoolgirl stuff her friends were into wearing … but. But! It got over that initial characterisation and “grew out of” those tropes. If there’s any way of saying that without sounding just irretrievably condescending, please let me know. I’m just saying, the opening made me go “hmm, what is this.” But then it passed.
The introduction of the characters, and the sheer gulf between Lance and Mari in particular, left me with a lasting impression that Lance was a lot older than he in fact was. So much so that later on, when he was revealed to be twenty, it was really quite disorienting. Still, this could be careless reading as well as the style of the character introductions. It was funny, that’s all.
Speaking of something that could have been my fault or the result of a bit of dodgy editing, this was the exact thought rambling through my head at one point around mid-book:
Why is Ricardo’s nickname Al? Wait, who the fuck is Alfonzo? Did they change names?
It seemed as though Mari’s douchebag brother’s name got changed at some point in the drafting process, but search-replace didn’t catch all the instances and the result was a scattering of Als and a couple of Alfonzos that were confusing. The need for editors strikes again. But oh well. For the most part, the character interactions were clean and emotionally powerful. Simple where they needed to be simple, and with enough complexity to make them believable.
The themes of brotherly and father / son redemption through the story were nice, giving Lance’s character arc a really good base. This did make Mari’s and Ricardo’s arc a little lacking in contrast, but maybe that’s also important? We don’t always get the redemption and reconciliation we expect from our characters. Life doesn’t wrap up in a perfect happy ending. Especially life in a cyberpunk dystopian sci-fi book.
I liked the chapter structure. The switching point of view approach is a good one for keeping a story moving along and giving us solid investment in each thread. And I was even pleasantly caught by surprise a few times as the threads joined up and revealed that this guy was related to this character, and so on. They were simple, but effective and enjoyable. And the use of nicknames and shortenings, while occasionally a bit confusing (“Al“), was an interesting way of keeping the reader from seeing the connections straight away. And, while the ultimate fate of the book’s villain is a bit tucked-away in the final rush of dénouement, this is part one of a series so we can’t wrap up everything.
So what else have we got?
There wasn’t much sex here, hormonal school drama and frontier town prostitution notwithstanding. The story was actually stronger for it because aside from teenagers being horny under literally any circumstances, which we do see here, the events of Ache just aren’t conducive to sex. I give it three-quarters of a honky tonk piano and a single swinging saloon door out of a possible Wild West brothel.
There are plenty of lovingly-described fights here (pretty good ones, too!), and there’s a whole lot of really thought-provoking psychological and sociological exploration of human weakness, but it’s not what you’d call gore. Again, this story isn’t the sort of story that needs it. Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
There wasn’t a whole lot of WTF in this story either! It was as all-too-plausible as any good cyberpunk should be. My main point of contention was actually lampshaded in the story – if you could use nanotech to control people so utterly, find a way to make them infectious to infiltrate people against their will, make nanos that destroy competing companys’ nanos, and you could also just kill people with guns, why bother making killer nanotech? I might have missed it but I really don’t see why it was wanted by the antagonist. It was literal overkill. Aside from the ultimate ‘playing God’ element of it, I suppose. All the other elements should have been enough. Make EMP-proofing a target. I don’t know. I’ll give Ache seventeen thousand melting clock faces out of a possible elephant with really, really long legs.
My Final Verdict
Ache was a worrying and insightful look at not-too-distant future technological advancements and the risks inherent in mob mentality and human inability to self-police, in every sense of the term. The characters felt real and the stakes kept me coming back to see what would happen next. Ultimately it was a satisfying read. A very solid three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale. Thanks for a fun read!