Amortals by Matt Forbeck – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews another Matt Forbeck title, in which the author tackles the near future where those in power have a bent for cloning and resurrection.
“Incredibly gripping and a downright science-fiction thriller, Amortals is a non-stop roller-coaster ride.” ~The Founding Fields
Note: minor opening spoilers mentioned.
I really can’t say this enough: Matt Forbeck is bloody brilliant (to quote my review of his most recent novel for Angry Robot, Carpathia). Coming off Carpathia, Amortals is almost a natural choice for a second introduction to his work. Where one is a near-past paranormal action novel that reimagines the sinking of the Titanic, the other is a near-future tale of fantastic conspiracies in a world dominated by cloning and genetic resurrection. Where one is a novel from the viewpoint of several protagonists, the other is from the first-person perspective of a Secret Service agent who just won’t die. I picked up Amortals at a whim because I wanted to read more Matt Forbeck and so going in I expected to be as wowed and amazed as I was with Carpathia. And if there is one thing that Matt Forbeck does, he never disappoints!
Amortals starts off with one of the most shocking beginnings I have ever read: we are treated to a front row seat as we watch the protagonist, Ronan Dooley, get brutally and almost clinically murdered while being tied to a chair and blindfolded. There is so much inherent casual violence in those scenes that it really affects you. That’s what pulled me into the novel straight away and why I knew that this was going to be an awesome novel. All cliches of violence and men aside, this is a highly evocative opening, one that is intended to shock and awe the reader, and make them keep turning the pages to see who killed Ronan Dooley and why. Of course, the man hired to handle this investigation is none other than Ronan Dooley himself.
For you see, our protagonist is the latest clone of an American Secret Service agent named Ronan Dooley, the first test subject and success of the Amortals Project who is nothing short of being a celebrity in his own right given that status.
Interested yet? I bet you are! I certainly was, and that’s why I just had to blast through this novel. Every moment not reading it was a moment being wasted. Very, very few books can have that kind of an effect.
I really liked Ronan Dooley. He is a tough-as-nails hero who understands his own limitations and while he is quite daring and brave, he isn’t stupid about the risks he takes. At least not much, but then he can’t really be blamed for the villains being such a damn smart bunch. No B-movie, Bondian villains in this novel! He is a truly fascinating character as someone jaded with the turn his life has taken and the negative consequences that the Amortals Project has had on his family life. His bitterness and cynicism breathes through the pages of the novel and Matt Forbeck has done a brilliant job of portraying that side of him. More such jaded heroic figures I’d read in a heartbeat. Not to mention that brutal beginning of the novel. That leaves a mark on the reader, and also foreshadows some really terrible events that happen in the novel. This is a political SF thriller through and through and this is a novel that is perfectly suited to its protagonist like a well-tailored three-piece double-breasted suit. *Hope I got that terminology right!*
Agent Dooley isn’t the only character to cheer for though. There is also Amanda Querer, his new partner, a spunky, straight-talking and irreverent character who can give Dooley a run for his money. She makes a perfect counterpart to him, in more ways than one as she is not an Amortal and is practically young compared to the ancient wizard that Dooley is. I really liked reading about her and discovering the secrets she keeps hidden. She is a perfectly written character that simply doesn’t get enough page-time to be truly wonderful, not that there is anything lacking in her characterisation mind you. Querer is pretty spot-on and characters like hers are a joy to read.
Then there is Director Patrón, Dooley’s superior, fellow Amortal and, perhaps the only friend he still has who is alive and kicking. Patrón is an interesting character with a lot of shades of grey to him. He is not quite as flawed as Dooley and he skirts that line between good guy and bad guy in many ways. There is a lot of potential for things to go wrong and Patrón coming off rather cliched and boring, but that’s not the case. Matt Forbeck has a really natural hand at characterisation and Patrón is no exception to that. Seeing his character arc play out and getting to the mind-boggling pay-offs in the end is really worth the effort of reading through the novel. Not that Amortals is at all a tough read. Quite the opposite.
Matt Forbeck has a really nice flair for writing “common characters” with a twist. For example, Dooley isn’t just any other celebrity Secret Service agent (are there really any such agents?). He is the celebrity Secret Service agent, even more so than him being the male protagonist. Amanda Querer isn’t just any other partner for Dooley; she is the partner for him. And so on. What’s not to love! There is a great amount of backstory and detail to each of the characters and the diversity of these characters is just as fantastic as the novel itself.
Perhaps the most striking example is one of the villains of the novel: Patil, an Indian crimelord who controls a rather healthy share of all crime in the city of Washington D.C. When was the last time you got some South Asian representation in your speculative fiction? There have only been two fringe cases for me this year, out of a total of 55 novels!
Amortals is fast-paced and non-stop with its action. There is a layer of extreme hostility and tension within each scene, a trend that continues on from the shocking beginning of the novel. Dooley and Querer are pretty much put through hell before they get to bottom of things and figure out just what the hell has been going on. The twists and turns, when they arrive, you never see them coming. There are some small hints and such in the narrative, and they make the climax really worth it.
There is also a rich variety of action in the novel, whether it is the initial “rape with bullets” that Dooley witnesses in the beginning, the scenes in Dooley’s apartment or any others, there is a great vitality to them. Imagine the early shootout scenes from Assassins between Antonia Banderas and Sly Stallone and you won’t be too far off the mark in awesomeness.
Like I said, Matt Forbeck has a real talent for this, and writing “near-contemporary” fiction is something that is really good at. He never belabours a point with his characters and he never brings you too far down that roller-coaster, although the reverse is quite true. His prose is also tight, beautifully-writen and his neat turns of phrase in the dialogue and the cynicism and humour of his characters are some of the things that really leap off the page. His economy with words is great and like many a great author, what he writes will take lesser authors paragraphs upon paragraphs to write, and do so with some skill too.
The world-building of Amortals is also something that really draws you in. It is a Washington D.C. of barely a century ahead of our current time and as such there are a lot of references that people will get straight off that help them place where in the city all the action is happening. I only have a very basic and rough knowledge myself from two brief trips in the last decade or so and it was still fairly easy for me to figure things out. Relatively speaking. Matt Forbeck has also peppered the novel with enough SF technology and contemporary tech to make this a true near-future story. It is certainly a world that I would like to be explored further because it is so rich and complex. Amortals very much gives you the feeling that you barely scratch at the surface of this world, even though we already see so much of it, whether it is the city slums or the halls of governmental power, family homes or the hideouts of notorious ganglords or what have you.
Overall, Amortals is a seriously impressive novel that I’d recommend to everybody. I really don’t have any criticisms of it other than it being a little too short for my tastes, although it is an average-length affair. The climax and the final resolution happen a little too fast as well, although Matt Forbeck still avoids the feeling that things are particularly rushed. They are not.
So yeah, I really enjoyed reading this and I’ve already asked Matt to work on a sequel to it. Crazy-insane as he is though, he is currently busy with his 12 novels in 12 months campaign, not to mention a lot of tie-in stuff he is doing. The man is a writing machine.