This is an ambitious series-opener which blends aspects of militaristic sci-fi with a well-constructed alternative reality, and multiple overlapping and interwoven plotlines. The time is now, the earth is different, and a covert cold war is being fought between psionic soldiers and their spies…
It’s a cracking concept which has been adroitly executed. Fires of Man is a page-turner, no doubt about it. Happily, it doesn’t sacrifice good character development for the sake of intense action set-pieces or intricate plotting: you get the whole lot which makes this a weighty read. Not all of the character arcs turn out well in this first episode of what will become the Psionic Earth series, and as the multiple plots unfold you really have no idea what fates may befall them.
My favourite thread of this intertangled tale involved the army psy-corp officer who took a posting to the equivalent of the Far East in order to escape a broken heart (note to character: broken hearts tend to follow you around). A stranger in a very unfamiliar cultural landscape, isolated and emotionally vulnerable, he stumbles over a master sensei who has truly tapped into the potential of chi – the same force which the warring ‘western’ nations know as psionics. His gradual enlightenment and understanding of his gift and its true potential is one of the book’s most successful sequences, and holds much promise for further episodes.
Other aspects of the narrative were less rewarding; an archaeologist’s explorations into potentially important ruins do little more than set up a scenario for the future. I could’ve done without quite so much stumbling around ancient tunnels in the dark. Similarly – for me – the coming-of-age threads with the two young psions who have just come into their power were not so engaging. But I appreciate that there will be a sizeable chunk of the FoM audience who fall into the YA category, and they’re well served by the troubled teens who can’t quite get to grips with either their sudden superhuman abilities or the gruelling routine of army bootcamp. Cue moral dilemmas: with great power comes great responsibility, yadda yadda.
The one truly captivating character was, of course, one of the bad guys – although I have to say that author Dan Levinson has carefully avoided stigmatising either side. It’s just that the Calchan psions are more violently ruthless than their Orion opposition. Anyway, ‘Agent’ is the stand-out creation of this book; one of those totally capable, murderous sociopaths you’d only ever want to have on your side.
Setting an estranged, adult brother and sister on opposite sides was an engaging ploy, too, although I wanted the female character to quit whining and pining and start making like the career military soldier she was supposed to be. My grumbles aside, there are so many well-developed characters in FoM that you’re bound to find someone to identify with.
So overall this is a very promising opening episode to a new psy-fi series. If you’re the kind of person who can’t cope with a little delayed gratification then you’ll want to wait for the second in the series to come along before starting this one: there’s very little resolution after the dust of conflict settles. However, I tend to think that a little cliff-hanging never hurt anyone, so I’d dive straight in…
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Fires of Man is available at Amazon