Just before we begin, a little note to update you all on my publications: yesterday, I learned one of my stories, ‘Hello Kitty,’ placed third in a competition judged by William Nicholson, who is – among other things – the screenwriter of the award-winning movie ‘Gladiator’. You can check it out here! And now – back to our regular programming.
This week’s book review will focus on Saci Lloyd’s action-packed thriller, ‘Quantum Drop.’
A short, fast-paced novel, ‘Quantum Drop’ introduces us to a young man who goes by the name Anthony Griffin. Early in the novel he tells us that this is not his real name – he’s chosen it in order to tell his story, but he can’t tell us who he really is. Anthony lives in the Debtbelt, a place which sounds a lot like a rundown suburb of a large city, perhaps London, with his mother and younger sister Stella. Stella is eleven, highly intelligent, an expert on crow behaviour and a person with Asperger’s, and I loved her – she’s one of the most interesting characters I’ve come across in a long time. Anthony’s father is absent, but we learn a little about what happened to him as the book progresses, and we discover that Anthony finds it very difficult. His grandfather – who appears to be his paternal grandfather – is still a huge part of his life and gives him guidance, even if sometimes he chooses not to listen to it.
There is a group of people in Anthony’s world known as the ‘Bettas’, who appear to be like a gang; they have initiations, they are involved in crime, they are significantly better off financially than the other people who scratch out a living in the Debtbelt, and they are – on the whole – bad news. Anthony’s best friend is Ali, who has become wrapped up in the Bettas, for what he says are economic reasons. His loyalty appears to remain with Anthony, but the fact remains that Ali is a Betta – perhaps the word rhymes with ‘Better’ – and this causes conflict between the boys.
The existence of the Bettas, and the grinding reality of the Debtbelt, are not the only notable things about Anthony’s world. There also exists something called the Drop, into which certain people can connect themselves through their handheld computers (I imagined them like smartphones, but with far more capability); skilled users can make their living through manipulating the Drop, and Anthony’s friend Lola does just this. Another person who was an adept at using the Drop was Anthony’s girlfriend Tais; at the book’s outset, however, we learn that she has been grievously wounded, and that she is in a coma in hospital. Anthony’s grief and rage at this terrible situation blight the rest of his life – he flunks out of his school exams, and seems to be heading down a difficult road. Then, he is approached by a mysterious figure known only as ‘the Teller’, who seems to know the truth about what happened to Tais…
The book moves quickly through the reality of Anthony’s world: he finds out that there is a connection between the Bettas and Tais, and he enlists the help of his friends to get him into the Drop to get to the bottom of it. Anthony is not as skilled at using the Drop as his friends are, and this leaves him at a disadvantage – as well, of course, as endangering everyone else. Lloyd creates a disturbingly real and believable connection between Tais’ fate and the realities of ‘big banking’, economic collapse and massive scale financial fraud as we know them in our world – the scenarios she describes are cleverly constructed and extremely easy to picture. What is not so easy to picture, however, is pretty much everything else in the novel.
I am all for books dropping the reader straight into the heart of the action. I love stories that begin ‘in medias res’, and I love to be thrown into a story, having to figure out things as I go. I have no problem with trying to work out terminology, concepts, and the ‘technology’ of a fictional world, like a detective putting clues together. I love that challenge, being truthful. However, in order to do this effectively, a reader needs something upon which to base their imaginings. The Drop (i.e. the ‘Quantum Drop’ of the book’s title) is never properly explained, or described – it seems to be like a ‘virtual reality’, or a Second Life type scenario, where people exist in ‘reality’, wearing headsets which connect them to a second existence inside a computer. Inside the program, they can change their appearance, even creating a whole new identity for themselves which can fool everyone but the most adept of users. Injuries they suffer in the Drop appear on their physical bodies; if they die in the Drop, we’re led to believe they die in reality, too. Dodgy dealings are done in the Drop, and users who get involved with crime – helping criminals hide their ill-gotten gains, and so on – are the ones who earn the most money from it.
I have to be honest, though, and say that I found the Drop really hard to envision. My mind kept going to The Matrix, and how the characters in that movie ‘jack in’ to the other reality in which they live, one that can be controlled and affected by skilled programmers. I guess this was the idea Saci Lloyd was aiming for – but I think the Matrix did it a bit better. In that story, at least, there was a solid reason for the existence of the Matrix: in ‘Quantum Drop’, it’s just there. We don’t know why, or what it’s used for besides crime. It’s not properly described, and there’s no payoff for the reader in expending all their mental energy trying to imagine it. We don’t get to find out whether what we’ve imagined is ‘right’. I found that frustrating.
Having said all that, the plot is tight and fast and exciting, and the mystery at the heart of Tais’ fate is gripping. The characterisation is excellent throughout – each character is unique and distinct, and they are all interesting. I found myself emotionally invested in the story and interested to see how it would resolve; I particularly loved Stella’s role in the final showdown. My favourite aspect of ‘Quantum Drop’, however, is the thing which made me buy the book in the first place – the voice. Anthony Griffin’s voice is excellent. Lloyd has created a fantastic character in her protagonist, and I loved having him as a guide through the confusing and strange world in which he lives. The characters were more rewarding and ‘real’ than the world, I thought, but I really cared about Anthony and his family and friends, and their story was great even if the setting was sketchy and hard to envision. Saci Lloyd’s writing is poetic and imaginative, and she definitely spares no blushes in her handling of the harsher realities of life.
I would recommend this book, but I do think it would have benefited from slightly more clarity, and a little more in the way of concrete detail regarding the eponymous ‘Drop’. Besides that, it’s a great, fast-paced read.
Happy Saturn’s Day, my loves. Go! Read!