Today marks another first for me as a writer: my first time publicly reviewing a peer author’s work. I’ve recently been trying to become more involved in the writing community through social media platforms, especially Twitter, and in the process I’ve made many new friends and accumulated quite a reading list. There’s just so many cool books out there that I never knew about before! It can be overwhelming at times.
You know what else is overwhelming? How enjoyable the first one I read was. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kelsey Lee Connors’ debut novel, Surge.
Surge is at its core a fantasy adventure taking place in 1920s Chicago, but in a different, alternative history than the one we all know. In this timeline, rather than the gilded, glitzy, and yet antiquated 20s we’ve seen in works like The Great Gatsby, Chicago is a dystopian nightmare ruled by the Corporation, a massive energy company that owns everyone and everything and has taken over most facets of life. Faceless enforcers patrol the streets to keep the populace in line, most of whom live in poverty-ridden tenements due to an event years before called the Surge that wiped out civilization for miles beyond the city center. While the steampunk-inspired technology has reached heights it never did in the history we know, the Corporation holds power with an iron fist and people like Evelyn O’Donnell and her family live in constant fear of being disappeared. That is, until Evelyn meets Dante Malachi, a mysterious young man who convinces her to push back against the system and awakens a strange new power within her. Evelyn and Dante, however, are in way over their heads, and they quickly find themselves running for their lives from the Corporation and the monsters it created, and part of a larger rebellion than they had ever dreamed of.
First of all, I knew I was going to like this book pretty much immediately both from the time period it’s set it (my favorite), its alternative history background (which I find really fun), and its genre placement in fantasy/thriller/adventure/sci-fi. It’s a perfect combination of things that make my inner geek jump up and down with excitement. If you think that made me biased, whatever. The point is, I loved it.
The setting is one huge part of what really makes this story tick: it’s a fully reimagined landscape where old-timey language and societal attitudes are blended seamlessly with a new reality where technology, despite its antiquated nature, is still way beyond the 20s in the history books. It’s a very dystopian take on Chicago reminiscent of works like George Orwell’s 1984. The writer also clearly did her homework when researching the way people spoke in this period (probably more than I did when I wrote my 20s novel): the slang is really authentic and brings a grounding and charm to this otherwise baffling, bleak sort of world. I mean, come on: Corp Bulls. I just love the sound of that. The world portrayed in Surge is totally immersive, familiar and yet alien, and I was so wrapped up in both learning more about the world and the nonstop action that I almost couldn’t put it down.
Even more than the set pieces, however, are the characters that really make Surge stand out to me. In an age where readers are constantly looking for stronger, more assertive, and self-assured female heroines, the construction of Evelyn O’Donnell is a master class in good writing. I loved her spunk from the very first page: she’s fiercely loyal and protective of her family, but in a closed-off way that keeps her from relating to or trusting other people every easily. Enter Dante Malachi, whose irreverence and somewhat patronizing attitude just pushes her buttons in so many ways it’s not even funny (okay, it’s a little funny), but yet is for all intents and purposes an echo of Evelyn herself. They both have severe trust issues they struggle to overcome, and traumatic pasts to wrestle with, Dante’s more deep-seated and Evelyn’s more recent. As a result, the interplay between them and character chemistry was fantastic and fun to read.
I’ll be honest: when you see a male and female as leading characters in a story like this, it’s almost a given that they’ll end up romantically involved by the end. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily: it’s just how most stories work, and as such I saw the connection between Evelyn and Dante coming a mile away. But that said, the slow burn of their relationship, especially how Evelyn kind of despised Dante for the better part of the first half of the book, made it much more real to me than if either of them had been immediately infatuated with the other and just spent the whole time trying to deny it. I’m absolutely not disappointed, as such, that it seemed a romance was blooming between them by the end: I actually was in doubt for a while whether it was even going to happen, and that’s the mark of great story crafting. It was authentically imperfect and incredibly well done, and it just made the rest of the plot more believable as a result.
There’s also a healthy dose of horror and fantasy in this self-styled cyberpunk world, in the form of both the “energy vampire” monsters created by the Corporation and Evelyn and Dante’s–to borrow a term from The Flash–metahuman abilities. Apparently, the Surge somehow gave certain people the ability to manipulate electricity using their bodies, a skill which both characters manifest but Evelyn appears to be far more adept at channeling. This adds yet another interesting twist in the complex narrative, coupled with the very real creeps I got from reading about people being transformed into sludge-spewing, man-eating zombies. I was especially reminded of the protomolecule-infected people in The Expanse book series when I got to those parts, and there’s certainly no lacking for thrills because of it given the reveal that there’s God-knows-how-many of these things lurking in the city slums. All in all, Surge is a deft and enticing blend of a lot of different genres and tropes, making for a highly-engrossing read that brings the thrills and wonder at you from all angles.
My biggest issue with the story overall was that, much like Lost (one of my favorite TV shows of all time), I felt that in some cases Surge posed questions that weren’t satisfactorily answered. The good news is that I have it on good authority a sequel is in the works, which could resolve some of these questions that are left hanging in the air. I mean, I don’t mind some mysteries and ambiguities left at the end of a story, but there were a few cases I really wished I had more information. For one thing, I’d love to know where this timeline diverged from the one we all know: maybe it was something as simple as Tesla’s theories of electricity gaining ground over Edison’s. It’s not necessary, I get that, but it might serve to ground the book a little bit more in reality and bring people into its fascinating world even more. In addition, I’m not sure I buy the idea that the energy vampires are a purposeful attempt by the Corporation to create a new, subservient race: I think that’s what the story hinted at, but I was never quite clear on it. If anything, it seems like an unintended byproduct of their experiments that could end up coming back to bite them (literally), and everyone else, too. I’m getting flashes of Agent Smith taking over The Matrix, if you want to know where I think this all could be heading. A tiny bit more clarity on that point might have been nice. Finally, the nature of Evelyn and Dante’s metahuman abilities remains unexplained for the most part: again, not a real fault, just something I wish could have been hinted at a little more.
To clarify: none of these factors really changed my opinion of the quality of the writing, especially knowing another book could be coming. These are just me being really impatient and nitpicky. I apologize if it’s unfair of me to say.
On a slightly more serious note, I was slightly disappointed with the handling of a couple of side characters, mostly the Corporation flunky Sergeant Fyve and Evelyn’s brother, Ezekiel. I’ve found that in many cases, a story is only as strong as its villain. You could of course argue that in Surge, the point of the conflict is not overcoming a single bad guy, but a whole corrupt and oppressive regime, which is made all the more terrifying by its faceless nature, and you’d probably have a point.
I just think that as the only named Corporation minion in the story, there could have been a little more to Fyve than met the eye. It seemed he only appeared at the beginning, and then once more very randomly at the end. I almost wondered why it was important that he be present at all. Perhaps a more emotional tie connecting Fyve and Evelyn, or her other family members, could have been more effective: I could easily see George O’Donnell (Evelyn’s father) and Fyve having some kind of history that lead him to despise their family on a personal level, and possibly provided some more depth to his crusade against them. But hey, there’s always next book. In the end, like I said before, Surge is much more about the lead characters and their relationship rather than the antagonist, so it’s probably nothing to worry about anyway.
My main concern was with what happened to Ezekiel: he served as the catalyst for Evelyn to be introduced to Dante, and then conveniently disappeared to let their relationship develop free of outside interference. At the beginning of the story, I liked Ezekiel almost as much as I liked Evelyn. His trusting, gregarious, and charitable nature was a great counterpoint to her spitfire, take-no-prisoners attitude. I was sad to see him written out in a such a way, even though I understand for story reasons why it was done. Plenty of books I’ve read have featured a trio of main characters, with one sort of being the third wheel and comic relief: Ezekiel could easily have filled that void and stuck around throughout the whole story, and I wonder what it would have been like as a result. I felt that to some extent, he was more a plot device than a character, used simply to have reason for Evelyn and Dante to meet. But again, maybe he’ll pop up in the next book. Here’s hoping.
The other supporting characters had much better luck: for example, the mob family’s depictions were great, with each character being definitively distinct from the others and memorable on their own, even though they were only in about a third of the story and were relegated to side roles.
My Rating: 8/10
While I felt there were some missed opportunities in storytelling and some questions I wish had been better answered, the fact is that Surge is in nearly all senses an absolute tour-de-force and powerhouse (get it?) of a first novel. I’d happily recommend it to anyone who likes, well, fiction at all, simply due to how many genres it blends together so convincingly and serves up in a sleek, slick, well-designed package with fun, engaging, and yet grounded and real characters that always keeps you wanting more. I personally can’t wait to see what’s next from this author, whether it’s Surge 2 or anything else.
Incidentally, I think this book would make an amazing video game adaptation. It’s really all there: the opening scene where Evelyn trains with her karate instructor is the demo mode where the player learns basic controls. Then you get into the running and fighting stuff, and with an open world sort of setting, it could really be quite cool. There’s even bosses (Sergeant Fyve, Lazarus) and monsters (the energy vampires) to go up against. So if you’re reading this, executives at Bungie/Valve/343/wherever…you should get right on that.