It’s been a while since I’ve done a proper review of something I’ve read or watched, but I’m going to dive back into it, if briefly, to deliver you a look at an awesome sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian/YA/alt-history/about a million other potential genres book written by Kelsey L. Connors: Surge! I may have reviewed this story before way back on this blog, but with a slick new look (including the brilliant cover you see above) and a new home in self-publishing, let’s take a glance at what makes this story tick.
Here’s the back-cover blurb from the book’s Amazon page:
Chicago in 1922. The city is ruled by a tyrannical energy company called The Corporation.
Sixteen-year-old Evelyn O’Donnell’s family is in shambles when a rogue vehicle mysteriously kills her father. But she suspects something much more sinister in his death, something linked to the rebellion that nearly leveled the city so many years ago. And her karate lessons won’t be enough to defend her and her brother when The Corp comes to collect the children of the apocalypse.
Penniless but determined, she meets her brother’s friend: the charming and mischievous Black Jack Player, Dante Malachi. Discovering a unique power within her, Evelyn and her new accomplice plot to sting the city’s speakeasies and avenge her father’s death.
But as the duo join the razzle-dazzle of Chicago’s underworld; Evelyn discovers her father had tried to protect her from the dark truth about this city and her past. Evelyn knows she will have to do everything in her power if she ever hopes of reaching their shared dream of a life free from poverty and oppression.
Even if it means joining the mob.
Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, you won’t be disappointed once you actually read the book for real.
As the blurb kind of hints, this is an alternative history story set in a dystopian version of Prohibition-era Chicago (hilariously in the exact same year as my slightly more traditional historical fiction work in progress, The Showstopper) that’s kind of like someone crossed Sucker Punch with 28 Days Later. It’s got elements of steampunk, zombie survival horror, and some good old-fashioned 20s-style swing. The city is a police state, with little to no idea of the status of the outside world, after an energy catastrophe called the “Surge” changed history and gave The Corp the power to completely take over. Citizens like main character Evelyn live their lives by their time cards, always in fear of the Bulls, corporate enforcers with retro-style ray guns. I’ve read some pretty wild alternative histories, but the thing that makes the world of Surge stand out are the little details that show the novel’s connection to the period it’s based on, marrying the past and the alternative past in a way that’s elegant for fans of the 20s and cool for everyone otherwise. For example, “Bulls” comes from the name of railroad guards in the 1920s whose job it was to patrol train cars for vagrants and hitchhikers, not to mention the fact that the dialogue and details are littered with accurate 20s slang: “doll,” “jive,” and so forth. It’s the connections and hints like that that makes the otherwise alien setting believable and appealing.
The two main characters of Surge, Evelyn and Dante, also play a huge part in really selling the story. They’re both fiercely independent and with a renegade, rule-breaking streak that gets them into all kinds of really entertaining trouble. Evelyn and Dante’s relationship is one of those great antagonistic, but eventually beneficial partnerships between people who have more in common than they’d like to admit, and the romantic tension is unsurprising but totally makes sense. It’s also super entertaining to watch them drive each other crazy as you see their relationship bloom and watch them go from sniping at each other passive-aggressively to trusting each other with their lives. Evelyn is a model for female fiction characters everywhere: independent, assertive, and entertaining while still being human and flawed. Fans of brooding bad boys will also love Dante, whose wisecracks and cool, practical confidence are a perfect counterpoint to Evelyn’s occasional hot-headed stubbornness while maintaining his own slow-burning attitude problems under the surface. Together, the duo really works to carry the story and I have no trouble believing they make a great team.
Surge straddles a ton of different genres, and there’s really something in it for any fiction reader. Like zombie apocalypses? There’s drooling, rabid energy vampires swarming all over the place! Into fantasy? Magical electricity-based superpowers! If you want historical fiction, I’ve already explained why this book is a 20s-lover’s paradise. Not to mention there’s action and adventure galore, with a dash of romance and a new spin on the dystopian societies that make lots of YA so popular these days. I definitely had trouble putting the book down and taking a break, and overall the story flows so well that it makes the novel a very quick read.
If I have any one criticism of Surge, it’s that there’s almost too much going on for its own good at times, and at a select few points you can almost see the story buckling under its own weight. Between Evelyn’s discovery that she and Dante have supernatural abilities, the revelation that her unassuming father was actually a key figure in the rebellion against The Corporation, running from sludge-spewing zombies, joining the mob, and fleeing Corp minions left and right, the book poses a lot more questions about the characters and the world they live in than it ends up answering. Certain inconvenient plot threads, like Evelyn’s easy-going brother Ezekiel, feel like they’re brushed aside in favor of keeping the story moving when I almost wish I as a reader had more time to breathe and absorb everything. This is far from a knock against the story, to be clear–I have it on good authority that there will be more installments in this series in the future–but I do wish that some of the elements at play here, including why The Corp is experimenting on people, how Evelyn and Dante have powers, and what happens to the people around them–who sometimes feel like plot devices and window dressing for the main focus on Evelyn and Dante–were explored and explained a little more in this first installment. Outside of the literally faceless, omnipresent oppression of The Corp, there’s also little in the way of a direct antagonist for our heroes–not something every book needs, but something I always look for and wished this book made more use of at times. But as you can see, there’s plenty of high-stakes jeopardy going on to keep you glued to your seat, and on the edge of it until the very end.
My Rating: 4/5
If you’re a fan of the 1920s and some deliciously twisted dystopian sci-fi/fantasy, I highly recommend giving Surge a read. The nonstop action, winning main character pairing, and original blend of genres and ideas from across the literary spectrum makes this a book you don’t want to miss. I personally can’t wait for the next installment in the series!