Arina and Jen review Stormblood, the first book in Jeremy Szal‘s The Common sci-fi series.
|The Common #1
|Date of Publishing:
|June 4th, 2020
|abuse, beating, self-harm, ptsd, addiction, torture, graphic war scenes, death
Vakov Fukasawa used to be a Reaper, a biosoldier fighting for the intergalactic governing body of Harmony against a brutal invading empire. Now, he fights against the stormtech: the DNA of an extinct alien race Harmony injected into him, altering his body chemistry and making him permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression. It made him the perfect soldier, but it also opened a new drug market that has millions hopelessly addicted to their own body chemistry.
But when Harmony tells him that his former ally Reapers are being murdered, Vakov is appalled to discover his estranged brother is likely involved in the killings. They haven’t spoken in years, but Vakov can’t let his brother down, and investigates. But the deeper he goes, the more addicted to stormtech he becomes, and Vakov discovers that the war might not be over after all. It’ll take everything he has to unearth this terrible secret, although doing so might mean betraying his brother. If his own body doesn’t betray him first.
ARINA – 3.5/5*
“But humanity’s greatest vices have always been the ones most likely to kill you.”
As soon as I heard “alien biotech virus injected into soldiers”, I knew I had to pick up Jeremy Szal‘s Stormblood. The following is an unbiased review of this book. Thank you Gollancz for the ARC!
Any book that opens up with a heist is bound to capture my attention.
Stormblood grows beyond its thrilling beginning to deliver a story exploring the traumatic coils of war left behind long after its end.
Behind the smoking guns of the great conflict of this book are Harmony and Harvest. This latter, a bloodthirsty, self-established government faction, sought to attain the DNA remnants of the Shenoi, a long-extinct alien race.
Harmony weaponized it into its soldiers, painting their veins blue to amp up aggressive behavior to an uncontrollable rage. They named them Reapers and their violent victories gave the war its name.
The Reaper War ravaged planets and homelands, and long before the military forces of Harmony have scourged the Harvest dissidents off the map, the pain of it forever lingers in its people.
Now a drug freed into society, this virus, commonly called stormtech, seeps into the charred scars of Compass. This asteroid made the capital of the galaxy battles an addiction that endangers its citizens, a storm of aggression, physical effort, and risk-taking.
Vakov Fukasawa is a man who bears his own scars close to the surface. He was once a Reaper, and though he has since undergone rehab, in many ways he remains one.
When we meet him he’s just an ordinary man with remnants of alien biotech in his bloodstream, purloining secrets from people who eat eyeballs for breakfast. It’s an average Sunday for someone living in the lower echelons of Compass.
Much like its inhabitants, this asteroid still bears the charred scars of war.
Like all capitals, it is a world in itself; a stratified place where the richest carve their homes on top while the lower passageways are reserved for more shady characters.
Compass is a fascinating high tech city. A cacophony of peoples, tubes, floors wired with life-support systems programmed for specific alien species, hidden secrets, addiction, smuggling, and good old fashioned danger.
“Between the spikes of ships, the mammoth asteroid was barnacled with entry docks, spaceports, berths, stockyards, array towers, mooring gantries, hangars, surface facilities and hubs that were home to scores of defense weaponry.”
One feels like they could get lost in its innumerable tunnels and ecosystems, but none do it so as Vakov.
Propelled by his ambition to get his friend Grim a residency card, Vakov bites off more than he can chew during a high-risk job and once more finds himself with a mouthful of Harmony.
Recruited once more to clean up their dirty work, the former Reaper now turns his incessant methods towards detective work. Someone has been tampering with the stormtech reserves used in rehab centers, causing violent Blue Outs that lead to the murder of civilians. Someone intimately connected to Vakov, a ghost from his past.
With its name sullied by the use of stormtech during the war, Harmony longs to clean up its slate in the eyes of the Common, and Vakov is the overly convenient broom close at hand and easily grasped. Except there’s always that annoying line of dust you can’t quite sweep and there’s always something more to a mystery than what lies above its surface.
As we spiral up and down the floors of Compass, we’re not only thrown into an underground of corruption and crime, we are irrevocably caught in a hurricane of blaster bolts, volleys of gunfire, and high-speed brutality.
Every time Vakov steps into a room you’re biting your nails and crossing your fingers because this guy sure has a way of getting himself slashed, shot, tortured, overall hurt in imaginative ways.
He’s the kind of guy that makes you just want to buy him a drink and give him a break, the underdog with a harsh exterior and a heart of gold that you just love to root for.
“But caring for someone means doing what’s best for them, even when it hurts, even when it scars.”
I guess Szal had other plans because although Vakov does get his much-needed cocktails more than once he also gets and gives more than one hell of a beating.
Sometimes these fights read as too mechanical in an “I hit, I ripped, I shot, I slashed” narrative, while there’s also some in-scene war action that, although of clear purpose, retracts from the focus of the plot. 1st person POVs are tricky like that. It doesn’t completely detract from the enjoyability of reading but often it broke the flow of the story.
What’s undeniable is that Stormblood’s action is not for the faint of heart. It’s precise high-caliber artillery ready to burst a hole in your chest. It’s almost as if every scene is playing out in a video game, you can experience the stealth chases, the fights, the cutscenes vivid with the noise of a futuristic city, packed with sensorial overload as only a sci-fi landscape can be.
The worldbuilding is riveting, a thing of wonder. Szal carves one humongous asteroid with an equally enormous amount of cultures, technology, and societal structures that merit their own dictionary.
Guns that autoprint ammo, biochemically and physiologically altered human-animal hybrids, varied alien species, a panoply of AI applications— from AIs that can be infused with the mind of a person, to AI-altered rooms that are literally a person—, all of this coalesces into a diverse, colorful, magnetic world that snags your attention and wonder.
This expansive world is populated with the raw and intimate concerns of its characters. It’s a story that dissects war in all its aspects; its cruelty, its repercussions, its surplus prejudices.
It speaks its own language, critiquing military propaganda in marginalized, underprivileged communities, exploring the ravaging psychological consequences on its soldiers, the way it happens behind closed doors, in hushed decisions that pick and prod at more than one type of battlefield, leaving behind husks to be tended to.
“We’re all broken, no question about it. But, for now, we’re still human, and we’re going to make what we do count.”
Vak encapsulates the story perfectly; a scarred man, a plundered man, someone deeply devastated by his PTSD but still fighting for a semblance of hope and unity in the world. In running from his hurts, his past, and his fears, he risked embodying them. Now backed into a corner, how much does he still have to lose to the razing effects of the stormtech swirling blue under his skin?
If you’re in for high-caliber military action, a developed tech world brimming with spacefaring cultures, and a raw portrayal of the fallouts of war and addiction, Stormblood is the book to satisfy all your hungers.
And at the end of it all lies the whisper of a greater threat prowling its way through the galaxy, ravenous for the vulnerable remains of Compass…
JEN – 4/5*
“It was ironic that it had taken a stormtech outbreak that threatened thousands of people, the very thing that split my brother and I apart, to bring our lives crashing together again, but you don’t choose the cards you’re dealt. I’d hoped that time would have eased things, or that Artyom might have forgiven me, even if I hadn’t forgiven myself. This was far from how I’d envisaged reuniting.”
Fearless by From the Ash
Years ago, Vakov Fukasawa made the choice to leave behind his home and family to be part of the elite force of bio soldiers called the Reapers. These men and women have been injected with an alien DNA of the Shenoi, altering their bodies chemistry turning them into a force of super-soldier adrenaline junkies. Kind of a Universal Soldier meets Crank idea but with more story.
And with a premise like that, you can imagine my expectations were along the lines of non-stop pulpy sci-fi action brain candy. I filed it away in my head as “when I need fun” and I was here for that.
Surprisingly, Stormblood wasn’t that simple. I actually don’t know if I should be disappointed it wasn’t the mindless brain candy I had expected or pleasantly surprised that there was more substance in its messages.
While the story is a little darker and the themes a lot heavier on the social side than I expected, it definitely delivers on the action-packed side of things too. Stormblood would be one heck of a cool movie.
Events mostly take place in Compass City on Harvest – an asteroid that is riddled with people from across the system who are trying to make lives for themselves after the Reaper Wars’ end. The station feels huge and somewhat what I imagine a place like Tokyo, or Shanghai, would feel like with people eking out a living in every nook and cranny of space available, above and below ground.
The Reaper War ended two years before, but the price of that victory is still making its rounds.
Harmony created the Stormtech and through it the Reapers, in a bid to stop an invasion. But in doing so they made way for a dangerous drug that is now making its way through the population as more and more citizens become addicted to their own body’s adrenaline high.
The drug culture feels familiar with its social issues: long-term effects, clean-up programs, suppressors that help keep addictions under control, and even just how the world views these addicts. There are also plenty of terminologies like skinnies -Stormtech addicts or Bluing Out which is basically OD’ing but due to the nature of the drug, sometimes violently killing others in the process.
The worldbuilding here was quite impressive; whether it be the station, aftereffects of war on a world and people, the Stormtech, its weapons and armour, every aspect of it feels complete and well thought out.
Vakov, was formerly a Reaper and now gets by living as a smuggler with his business partner Grim (who does all the behind-the-scenes hacking). Vakov is not just the muscle of their little ventures, he also can think on his feet.
So, Harmony – the very same people that pumped him full of alien DNA without a whole lot of forethought into how wrong that whole venture could eventually go – are now asking Vakov, to come to work with them. The mission is to put a stop to the drug-tampering. which is causing people to Blue-Out and to make matters worse, Vakov’s brother Artyom, is Harmony’s number-one suspect.
Nothing is quite as simple as all of that and over the course of the story, clues are uncovered that just lead us further and further down a rabbit hole of greed, power, and a few of those crazies along the way who think they are making the world a better.
Outside of Vakov there is a small handful of characters that roll through the story in the past and present. I enjoyed the characters. I’m a sucker for found family themes or friendships built in unlikely places. And I quite liked the interludes with the past storylines that dealt with his life at home (gets some sibling time and where that relationship with his brother went wrong). Loved everything to do with the Babushka (grandmother) and his early years as a Reaper (complete with wack-job of a serial killer) where we get to meet his unit and see them in action but also realising the horrors of what the alien tech is changing them into.
I loved all the stuff that makes it military sci-fi; the guns, the armour, and the tech. I don’t think I can ever watch or read, any sort of weapon or armour upgrading scene without thinking of JW or The Matrix, and would be disappointed if that wasn’t a little nod to them.
There is a little bit of body horror – I mean he is basically half-alien now, so there were some weird, cool, and occasionally icky things (nothing too gross though) to do with his body’s adapting to the new DNA. Part of me kind of wanted the origin story with more of him learning to use and deal with the new changes etc. than we got in the interludes.
I had a few. Typical first book complaints – mostly it had to do with repetition. It’s something I’m a little sensitive to anyway. Being in first person makes this a bit more noticeable I think just because of his headspace and the changes taking place.
So, to close this off. Stormblood was a confident feeling debut even with the bits of repetition. And just coming off of my seeing Oppenheimer recently, I can see some similarities- which probably made this whole story feel darker all around. I enjoyed it though. It was fun and am looking forward to seeing where this series goes.
Every time that silly Rubix rabbit appeared, I just wanted to laugh because it’s such an oddly opposite avatar choice amongst the cyber/alien visuals. (But of course, you know with my love of bunnies, I personally thought it was the best avatar choice)
Note: Arina and Jen’s overall score is 3.75 which was rounded up to 4
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