The basic plot of the book is that humans are at war with an insect-like species, and a new plan has been devised to slip a disguised operative onto an alien ship and get information from an 'archiver' bug that will help humans get information to win the war -- but it turns out that the director of the operation has other plans for that information. That's not too much of a SPOILER ALERT! in that the description on Amazon already tells you there's a conspiracy involving this plan.
The book gets five stars from me. It has great action scenes, decent characters with just enough backstory to make you care about them but not so much as to drag the story, and a pretty compelling universe it's set in.
With that said, here's what else I thought about as I read this book:
Insect aliens? Really? In the June issue of IWM's magazine (still available here!) P.T. did an article about bugs in speculative fiction, and one of the first things I thought as I read this book was Oh, no, the aliens are insects. That information comes on pretty quickly, and if this wasn't a Nigel Mitchell book I might have quit there, but this is a Nigel Mitchell book and I won it in a contest, so I kept reading (because I like Nigel's writing and I like winning things and I like I free), and eventually the bugs won me over as decent alien enemies, possibly because the rest of the story was so strong that it overcame that trope and possibly because the writing is so good.
I'm not sure why alien-insect-enemies thing bugs (ALWAYS INTEND THE PUN!) me so much. If you think about it, it seems like the odds are aliens will look a lot like bugs. According to a box at the the top of a Google search on "how many species of insects are there," (and how much more reliable a source can you find?) there are 950,000 species of insects already identified, and I am reasonably sure that 1/2 of them flew into my mouth while I was walking with the boys Saturday, which is way more than the 658 (including subspecies) species of primates known. If the ratio of 1,443 bugs for every primate continues through the universe (why wouldn't it?) we are in for an awful lot of horrifying first contacts.
In Masquerade's case, as I said, the bugs won me over, mostly because Nigel does a good job of creating an actual bug society, and explaining it as much as he needs to in order to make the bugs more than simply generic video-game aliens. He also does a good job of still keeping the bugs aliens, though: there is never a feeling that these are simply humans with bug shells, and Nigel gives great descriptions -- limited in perspective because his humans don't know much about the bugs -- of how bugs act, what they eat, even what they smell like. It's all very well done. Which bring me to:
What In The Worlds! One of my favorite authors is Robert Heinlein, who has his flaws (his characters are talky, even if they are interesting) but writes great books. One thing I always liked about Heinlein is the way he just dumped you into his universes and assumed that you as the reader were familiar with the universe. Rather than tons of expository writing, Heinlein explained only what needed to be explained as he went along (and sometimes not even that), and then only if absolutely necessary to the plot or the reader's understanding of the plot (aside from the times that Heinlein gets sidetracked on the math, which is a different essay some day).
That's an important part of writing, especially science fiction, because explaining too much can cause the reader to take a step back. Think of Star Wars: aside from a brief explanation leading into the original movie, Star Wars doesn't explain too much about what the universe is really like. There's no explanation for how the political system works or what commerce is like or how the various alien and robot characters came to be or how they act. Things just happen and we learn about them as they do. Like when Princess Leia lies about where the rebel base is and the Empire blows up Alderaan anyway, saying that the other planet is too far away to be an effective demonstration. In most books, that would have been handled by 2 or 3 pages explaining how the Empire was set up and what these planets were and how they operated, and then the scene would begin.
Nigel does his world right: there is a minimum of explanation, and that lack of explanations has effect of making the reader feel closer to the world itself; assuming familiarity with the world means that the narrator is less intrusive and we're more along for the ride, and it gives the third-person writing more of that immediate first-person feel. What with Andrew spurring all that debate about first- versus third-person, this is important: lots of first-person supporters said they like the urgency of the feeling of that point of view, but you can create immediacy and connection and urgency simply by putting your reader in the story rather than having a narrator hold them at arm's length.
So when the world needs to be explained in Masquerade, it gets explained as part of the action. There are, for example, three levels of society on Earth, A, B, and C, and the poorest level is C, which one of the characters has to spend some time in, unwillingly (Level C is like Mad Max taking place in the sewer city of Futurama), and Nigel doesn't spend any time explaining how Earth got this way or even much about how it works, other than to have some characters mention some things in passing, as part of the action. Again, like Star Wars, it works because it keeps the story from dragging and makes me feel like I'm part of that world as opposed to only reading about it.
Throughout the book, Nigel does that, and each revelation of the universe he's created is simply presented as "Oh, here are more things you ought to know about because they're just the world, you know", from asteroid mines/spaceship stops to an entire resort created on another planet by aliens for humans to visit to starships to the organization behind the conspiracy, Nigel presents these things are both amazingly detailed and seem to fit together well, but are also just mentioned in passing, for the most part, so the book moves along at a great pace and almost never slows down.
The effect is to have the book feel like a movie, which is a great compliment: books are not like movies, after all, in that they're read over days (or weeks, in my case) and put down and picked back up, while movies are just watched, usually in one sitting. (Not at my house, but that's not pertinent, here.)
The other effect is to make me want more. There's so much of the universe that Nigel touches on here that this set of worlds could provide a lot more stories. Like the Star Wars universe-- again, very much a compliment -- Nigel has created an entire system that would just spin off story after story after story, which means that I'll finish up with
Characters Matter: Like the bugs, the other thing that could have gone wrong here but didn't was the main character, Jason Locke. Jason Locke is more or less the Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx character in every action movie, ever: good-looking, dedicated, amazingly skilled, quick-thinking, etc etc etc, he's basically a superman without a cape, which is almost every sci-fi character in almost every book ever, and it's a character I'm not totally sold on reading.
I once said in a comment on a blog that I wished someone would create a wizard who had no limits to his power, no weaknesses, and no qualms about using his power, like Genie in Aladdin once he's freed, because limits on powers are often artificial constraints that make it easier for a writer. Why doesn't WIZARD simply blow up the bad guys? We have to use our power sparingly, or every time I use my power I die a little or he's wearing yellow and I am a Green Lantern. Those limits are as often as not there because the writer couldn't figure out how to tell a story with an all-powerful wizard and have it be more than one page long.
The answer to that could simply be don't have an all-powerful wizard, or a wizard at all, which is what happens in Star Wars, almost: Luke and Han aren't all-powerful or even particularly skillful, at least in the first one. Obi Wan Kenobi is a wizard -- I'm using wizard generically, here -- but they place limits on his power, too: you can't act in anger or go on the attack or whatever when you are a Jedi, and Obi Wan lets himself die to become even more powerful and I'm not going to get sidetracked on why that had to happen, because at the end of the movie Obi Wan simply tells Luke to use the Force even though Luke has had maybe 10 minutes worth of training in the Force, and also even though had Obi Wan lived he could have told Luke before they left on the mission to use the Force, too, so it's hard to see how Obi Wan became more powerful by being struck down, but whatever I'm getting sidetracked.
The point is: all-powerful characters would be boring if not handled properly, which is why every genie can only grant 3 wishes, etc. So it's not just a crutch, but can be necessary to limit your character's power.
Why, then, the superman-action hero? Why does he still exist? Bruce Tom Denzel Washington Cruise Willis can get blown up, swing from ropes, be shot, walk across glass, fall several stories, dive onto moving trains, etc etc etc and have only a photogenic superficial wound on his face at the 2/3 mark of the movie, rather than being exhausted and having numerous torn ligaments and wrenched shoulders that would have him unable to finish the fistifight on top of the biplane at the end of the movie. Why? Why are those characters so popular? I have no theories on that, other than again, it's easier for writers, especially: Why bother to figure out how your character is going to fight that guy after he just was dragged underneath a truck for seven miles, when you can just have him do that without explanation?
Remember one of the greatest scenes in movies, when Indiana Jones, exhausted, sees the swordsman and pulls out his gun and shoots him? That was awesome, in part because it almost never happens. Most heroes are up for a fight there, and that becomes unrealistic.
Jason Locke is kind of like that. He is a superman, and while there are no doubt highly-skilled strong people out there that are more or less a notch above us -- Brett Favre never missed a start in something like 17 years -- I usually find that kind of character annoying.
Again, though, Nigel compensates for it, in two ways. First, he puts Jason into an environment where it's hard for him to be a superman: Jason spends most of his time in the bugs' ship, where even his amazing abilities are taxed because everything is so strange. That helps a bit, because it introduces a weakness for Jason without it being the artificial "my powers are no good against wood" variety. Jason's weakness is simply that there was no way to really prepare for the bug ship, and it shows.
More importantly, though, and more successfully, Nigel has supporting characters that make up for Jason being a superman. Supermen are kind of bland and hard to root for: we know they're going to win and we can't really empathize with them because we are people who wake up in the morning achey and sore from simply going for a walk last night, or who struggle to figure out how to use our GPS and can't imagine figuring out an alien computer system. Or at least certain people writing this post are like that. But Nigel's supporting characters are more fleshed out and more human and easier to root for-- number one among them the co-star, Jason's new wife, who sets out to try to tell Jason of the conspiracy and has a far harder time than she'd imagined she would getting to him. That half of the story -- Jason's wife is more or less the co-star of the book -- is every bit as absorbing as the main, Jason-centric story, or more so because Jason's wife is more human and has a harder time of it.
Jason does that successfully with other characters, including the bad guys, most of whom (with the exception of the main antagonist trying to kill Jason's wife) are well-drawn and have motivations that make sense and have enough backstory that you kind of care about them or at least keep them from being caricatures.
The main antagonist, though, is more or less the opposite of Jason: a superman who seems able to absorb any punishment and keep on going. In a bad guy, that's more acceptable than in a hero, if only because we're not asked to identify with the bad guy and also because that guy is in the Jason's wife part of the story, and it makes her plight more serious that she can't shake this guy for so long.
One thing I wanted to mention, too: even though they spend most of the story apart, Jason and his wife are a compelling couple that makes you actually believe they could be married and makes them seem more real. Husband-and-wife superspies is a hard concept to pull off, but Nigel does it here and it really helps the story.
Overall: This book deserves to be a movie. It deserves sequels, and spin-offs, and deserves to be mentioned in the pantheon with Star Wars and Star Trek and other great sci-fi stories. It has that same feel to it, a combination of sheer adventure with some philosophy mixed, as those two universes, do. It's a fast read and one I found compelling enough to look forward to reading each day. A definite must-buy for any sci-fi lover.
CLICK HERE TO BUY Operation: Masquerade on Amazon. It's just $3.99!