I've known of Wolf DeVoon for several years, beginning when our electronic paths crossed at the now-defunct Laissez Faire City Times. I'll confess that I didn't always grok what he was writing, nor did I even try; I was too caught up in my own worldview to pay much attention to those of fellow freedom-lovers. So, it was with a bit of apprehension that I accepted his offer to be my first Payola customer. I honestly wasn't sure I was up to the task I expected in reviewing Mars Shall Thunder, Book One: Judge Faraday and Mars Shall Thunder, Book Two: The Virgin of the Hunt.
Like any avid fiction reader, I love being sucked into a story. DeVoon didn't disappoint; I found myself not only having a hard time tearing myself away from the computer screen for necessary bodily functions, when I did my head remained so immersed in the MST universe that I had a hard time focusing on conversation and requests from family. Billed as "an adventure of the future on the Red Planet", one might be tempted to dismiss DeVoon's novel as derivative of the greats who came before him. If one did, one would miss out on one hell of a story.
From the beginning, DeVoon competently combines the pull of a space story with suspenseful twists and turns of a thriller, focusing on a young lawyer who's somewhat reluctantly agreed to an appointment to the bench on Mars. But things aren't what they seem, as he discovers en route. While Book One opens engagingly enough, it almost seems that the lawyer's hesitations are matched in DeVoon; but as the story progresses, both author and judge rise to their full potential.
Mars Shall Thunder unfolds nicely, plot wise; but the flowering of DeVoon's style also transpires over its course. Toward the end of Book One, he begins to insert perceptive perspectives that relate to the action, yet aren't necessary. If they weren't so damned insightful, and often very well crafted, they could grate -- instead they provide a means of reaching out to the thinking reader, providing a savory touch of art. An example:
Faraday was not to know -- nor would he learn until sometime much later in the night, after the torment and torture of carrying Elser's body to his grieving widow -- that mistakes are the rocket fuel of history.
Nor did he grasp immediately when shown, that all men are pawns in the fist of large, unseen forces, inexorably bending the levers of power until they snap -- the climax of a long, blind struggle to create something new. History is predictable while the pressure builds, then it explodes in a crescendo that no one expected or understands except in awe of its might, just as rocks melt beneath an atomic bomb. That the immense destructive power of war and revolution should be delivered by paper-thin mistakes, and only these, is implausible -- but true.
In Book Two, the story takes on a much more intimate tone; and although DeVoon's touch is sometimes heavy, his obvious familiarity with the concepts he explores makes that easy to overlook. He also appears to be another of the select group of men with the uncanny ability to portray exclusively female experiences accurately. Almost up to the book's very end, the reader's pulled along and kept guessing as to what's going to happen. Mars Shall Thunder is a satisfying tapestry of space thriller, love story, and thought-provoking observations on the human condition and its systems.
That's not to say that it's without flaws, however. DeVoon avoids the common spell-checker typos and similar errors that often plague novels, even those that receive the benefit of editorial attention. Simile is generously used -- sometimes overmuch. In several instances, a metaphorical construction would have been more powerful -- but it's that very power that seems to intimidate inexperienced authors, hence rendering metaphor underutilized. Some plot lines seem to vanish, only to turn up -- usually needlessly -- at the end of the novel. Similarly, certain scenes early on stand so thoroughly alone that when more context is provided for understanding them, even an attentive reader may have forgotten about them or dismissed them. Toward the climax of Mars Shall Thunder, some character developments seem almost intrusive, and left me wondering why they were introduced. A good editor would likely want to tighten the plot some, and probably offer suggestions for better character development, but in the main DeVoon is on solid footing.
In sum, I found Mars Shall Thunder to be an engrossing story despite its quirks. While there are no explicit pro-freedom speeches from characters, nor polemics lurking in the omniscient perspective, it is ultimately a story of the right to self-determination, and succeeds in subtly delivering that message. My hourly pay rate for reading Mars Shall Thunder works out to something well below minimum wage, but that's of little consequence; I greatly enjoyed reading it and would like to see more from the insightful mind of Wolf DeVoon.