The Burning Skies
I have been reading a bit of fiction lately. Perhaps it is a last hurrah before I start my doctoral program this Fall and no longer have time to read as much for pleasure.
I finished David Williams’ The Burning Skies the other night. This is Williams’ follow-up to his first novel, The Mirrored Heavens. Together, they form the first two parts of a trilogy but can be read alone (though I wouldn’t recommend doing so).
The Burning Skies (TBS) picks up four days after the end of The Mirrored Heavens (TMH). The setting for the novels is a century from now, 2110, in a world divided in a cold war between two superpowers, the Americans (the good ol’ USA) and the Eurasions, which are a joint power of the Chinese and the Russians (joined in loathing self-protection). TMH focused on an attack on the space elevator, a “beanstalk,” jointly built by the superpowers by a terrorist organization known as the Autumn Rain. (As an aside, Williams mentions that he started writing the first novel well before 9/11.) TBS deals with the aftereffects of that attack, focusing on a summit between the powers at a neutral (and huge) space platform in orbit and the attempts by the Autumn Rain to disrupt this summit and kill the leaders of the superpowers.
The pace of the novel is staggering. “Frenetic” is the word that I use to describe it and this applied to the first novel as well so I expect it will be a feature of the entire trilogy. The action is non-stop and Williams increases the subjective speed by using no chapters and telling the story entirely in the first person. We only know what they know, as they discover it through their trials and attempts to survive the chaos. The world of TBS is one of orbital directed energy weapons that work at the speed of light. If a weapon has line of site on you (or your cities), it can instantly destroy what it sees. Think of mutual assured destruction cubed with a high tech and nearly invisible Al-Qaeda thrown into the mix trying to disrupt things. The characters are all either soldiers, intelligence operatives, or other down and dirty sorts working for the military, which has effectively taken over the United States in a perpetual paranoid military situation. As one of the characters comments, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand was doing last week and things are so compartmentalized and factionalized within this military apparatus that double-agents, plans within plans, and schemes to take control, either directly in a coup or indirectly through leaping atop the chaos, are the constant order of the day. To add to this, the characters live in a world where memories can be erased, altered, or added and people can be conditioned with preset commands. It isn’t uncommon for characters to be on a mission where the ends are not known to them but appear as memories in their minds as the mission progresses. It is all very paranoia inducing and stressful and each of the characters reflects that.
The characters generally fall into two official types, those of “mechs” and “razors.” Mechs are the hardcore soldiers. They fight in mechanized and powered armor covered in weaponry and meshed to other mechs or their razors. Razors are normally paired with mechs in the field and are something like Gibson’s console cowboys crossed with an intelligence agent. They hack the systems and acquire the data to give their mechs a chance to survive the environment in which they find themselves.
Beyond this, I’m not going to get into the overall plot of the book as it would be fairly hard to do and avoid spoilers.
It was a very quick read and I quite enjoyed the book. There are twists upon twists as things progress at lightning speed within it. The only difficulty I really had with the book is that there are a lot of viewpoint characters. There three primary ones but a number of secondaries as well. With the changes back and forth, especially when the plot points are divergent, it can get a little complex to tell who was where and, wait, is this person a mech or a razor or whose side are they on? If I’d read TBS right after TMH, I would have had less difficulty but it had been a year, at least, and it took a while for me to reassemble some of the character backgrounds. While the book stands alone, reading them together (and in order) would really enhance the experience.
I am very much looking forward to reading the third book when it comes out. Williams has recently submitted the manuscript to his publisher, so I expect it in a year or so. If you wish to see what he’s up to in the meantime, he has a site for the books at autumnrain2110.com and he maintains a blog there as well.