Zero World

Caution: this book will give you whiplash.  Hough pulls you along so quickly, and then throws a plot twist at you so unexpectedly, that you might need to book a massage afterwards.  Or maybe get some Advil.

I admit that, going into this, I was chomping at the bit to be harsh.  For this, I sincerely repent and grovel on my knees.  As much as I try to be open-minded, I'm human.  The premise of an alternate Earth reminded me a lot of Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds, who is one of my favorite authors, so I was prepared to say, "Well, Reynolds, did it better, so pfft."

I am so glad I didn't!  Sometimes I'm such a book snob; it's excessively embarrassing.  Apart from a few (very few) proofing errors and a bit of a slow start, Zero World is exactly the kind of action sci-fi I've been craving.

Peter Caswell is an assassin.  He's very good at what he does, but after each job, his memories are wiped thanks to an implant in his head.  He doesn't know who he's killed or why, but that makes it easier to swallow ... sometimes.  The bottles of Sapporo in his fridge that he uses to track each reversion (memory wipe) tell another story.  But how can you feel remorse for an action you don't even remember?

Caswell's next mission is to investigate the discovery of a spaceship long thought lost.  He flies out to the derelict and feels an odd sense of déja vu ... and then his handler is in his head, ordering him to kill all of the crew that got him there, and to launch an escape pod on a specific trajectory.  This mission suddenly goes ultra-deep-black, and becomes, as his handler says, "The most interesting  mission you'll ever forget."

Caswell gets an extension on his reversion, because his mission will take longer than usual.  After all, he is traveling through a portal that will take him to an alternate version of Earth.

This is Horatio-Cane-sunglasses-level YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH.

On Gartien, Melni Tavan frantically scrambles to ensure that her cover as an embedded spy hasn't been blown after one of her informants dies.  The cold war between the North and the South has reached a tipping point: the Northern regions have benefited greatly from the knowledge of a mysterious woman--a Desoa named Alia Valix.  In a short period of time, the northern people have developed better weaponry and technology.  I wonder why?

Okay, so quick rundown of the Gartien geopolitical situation: many years ago, the planet was bombarded with asteroids that struck in a roughly parallel line around the globe.  The result was the Devastation--huge tracts of land rendered uninhabitable by deep craters.  The surviving population split into three distinct groups with identifying phenotypic characteristics; all the better to discriminate, my dear.  The smallest of the population groups, the Desoa, are descendants of the people who used to live in the area that is now the Desolation.  Valix, as she doesn't look like a Northerner or a Southerner, is assumed to be Desoa, and so is the person that Melni stumbles upon in the midst of an assassination attempt.  Valix, threatened by both of them, does the natural villain thing and tries to kill them, but they escape and forge a wary partnership.  The assassin is, of course, Caswell.

From here on out I'm afraid I'll ruin the whole glorious ride, so let me just say that even if I tell you to expect a gajillion twists, you'll still be surprised.  On Gartien, Hough has created a fascinatingly just-odd-enough version of Earth.  I keep saying "blixxing" as a polite cuss and kept wanting to say "Gratitude!" for "thank you" several days after finishing the book.  But do you want to know what was even more awesome than all the twists that Hough through in?  It's that Gartien is essentially a female-dominant society.  Women walk ahead of men.  They take the lead.  It's natural for them to be respected because they have always been respected.  And Caswell, despite being a confused off-world assassin, respects and honors this culture and admires the women of Gartien.

Look, I can't recommend this enough.  So just preorder it and get ready to have your mind blown multiple times.  In a great way.

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.


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