I loved the look of the cover and having all the depth of a pavement puddle, the book was off the shelves and into my hands before you could blink. In addition, the writer wasn’t a name I recognised – and as one of my targets this year is to read more books by authors I don’t know, I came away very pleased with myself…
Ten years after the attack that reduced Pittsburgh to ashes, all that remains is the Archive: an interactive digital record of the city and its people. John Dominic Blaxton is a ‘lucky one’. He survived the blast, but, crippled by the loss of his wife and unborn daughter, his days are spent immersed in the Archive with the ghosts of yesterday. It is there that he finds the record of a forgotten body. Who was this woman? And why is someone hacking the system to delete her seemingly unremarkable life? The hunt for the truth will drag Dominic from the darkest corners of the past into a deadly and very present nightmare.
The tone and pacing is more at the literary end of the genre, so don’t start this book expecting to be immediately whisked into a breathless whirl of action. After the initial shock, Sweterlitsch gives Dominic plenty of time to establish his daily routine, rambling through the digitised streets of Pittsburgh and haunting his longlost home with his wife. The prose is beautiful – shot through with yearning and loss.
This is the overarching theme of this book – what happens to the griefstricken when they can revisit events from their past, still have conversations with their dead partners and interact with them? The answer Sweterlitsch gives, is that there are some who are unable to move on – who spend all their time and resources stuck in the past. And Dominic is one of these lost souls…
The first person, present tense viewpoint gives us a ringside seat into his life and character. In order for this story to really work, we need to care about him and his predicament – which means that while we sympathise with his dogged determination not to move on from the life he built with his young wife in Pittsburgh, we also admire his inability to let the unknown young woman fade into obscurity. As we journey with Dominic on his travels, the constant pornography and gratuitous sexual content to sell everything and everyone – from celebrities to cars – is shocking. Sweterlitsch doesn’t hold back – think of the worst excesses committed on Facebook and Twitter, multiply it by a factor of ten and then normalise it – and you have the world Dominic inhabits.
As the story progresses Sweterlitsch handles the rising tension very well. While the pace is on the leisurely side, the sense of wrongness steadily increases, so that once the action really picks up, this book is difficult to put down. I stayed awake far too long once I got within touching distance of the denouement to discover what happens.
While this is flagged as Sweterlitsch’s debut novel, he is clearly no raw beginner. The prose is accomplished, the characterisation detailed and complex, the world vividly depicted and the unfolding situation handled with a sure deftness that means the climax doesn’t fall flat. The ending ties up all the loose plotpoints and gives each character within the story a reasonable journey. Any niggles? I did feel the villain at the heart of the conspiracy was rather two-dimensional and if he had been the only antagonist, this would have been a real problem. However there was another far more plausible antagonist, so this wasn’t a dealbreaker.
And if your taste runs to well depicted, science fiction thrillers, then go looking for this book – you won’t be disappointed.