Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Review: Skullcrack City

book cover for Skullcrack CityLife as a corporate drone was killing S.P. Doyle, so he decided to bring down the whole corrupt system from the inside. But after discovering something monstrous in the bank's files, he was framed for murder and trapped inside a conspiracy beyond reason.

Now Doyle's doing his best to survive against a nightmare cabal of crooked conglomerates, DNA-doped mutants, drug-addled freak show celebs, experimental surgeons, depraved doomsday cults, and the ultra-bad mojo of a full-blown Hexadrine habit. Joined by his pet turtle Deckard, and Dara, a beautiful missionary with a murderous past, Doyle must find a way to save humankind and fight the terrible truth at the heart of...SKULLCRACK CITY

It's been five years since I read We Live Inside You, JRJ's second collection of short stories. I'd forgotten how much he can get under your skin—I won't go any further with that metaphor. He has this wonderful ability to get you to care about his characters (with exceptions of course), be silent witness to their suffering, and re-assure them that they're still human no matter what.

One could say that Skullcrack City is an outgrowth of "The League of Zeroes," the opening short story in JRJ's first short story collection, Angel Dust Apocalypse. But while the body modification elements of "The League of Zeroes" factor into Skullcrack City (it's not a novel for the squeamish), the novel is so much bigger. "The League of Zeroes" is actually the origin story for Buddy the Brain, a minor character in the novel—the two doctors from the novel appear in a limited fashion in the short story.

JRJ's writing style shifts fluidly in Skullcrack City as the protagonist, S.P. Doyle, changes. The Doyle we meet in the Prologue struck me as sinister. He hardly seemed like the guy we were supposed to be rooting for. But then the story proper starts and we meet the Hex-addicted Doyle. The guy is a total mess, spiraling out of control with paranoid fantasies, and it shows up in the narrative. You're not sure what's real and what's hallucination as one sentence runs head on into the next. And just when you think he can't go any further, he crashes as his paranoid fears are confirmed. But we're only a third of the way through the book.

In the middle third, the Hex is purged from his system, but Doyle struggles like a newly hatched chick as his body returns to normal and he awkwardly tries to grow into the would-be hero role. The narrative slows down to a manageable pace with periods of introspection, letting the reader catch their breath. But it's also punctuated by episodes of violence to prevent reader complacency and prod Doyle out of episodes of navel gazing.

In the final third, Doyle is forced to adapt or die. His struggle to survive forces him to shed the awkward persona and stand for something. As certainty of purpose kicks in, a calm settles over Doyle. There's a sense of purpose now. As the world teeters on the edge of insanity and terrible monstrosities, it is Doyle who's now the rational one. We recognize the guy from the Prologue as the story has come full circle.

While this is standalone novel that eliminates any chance of sequels, I'd still like to make a request for more JRJ novels. Please.

This review initially appeared on Goodreads.


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