In one of the most exciting debuts in years, G. T. Almasi has fused the intricate cat-and-mouse games of a John le Carré novel with the brash style of comic book superheroes to create a kick-ass alternate history that reimagines the Cold War as a clash of spies with biological, chemical, and technological enhancements.
Nineteen-year-old Alix Nico, a self-described “million-dollar murder machine,” is a rising star in ExOps, a covert-action agency that aggressively shields the United States from its three great enemies: the Soviet Union, Greater Germany, and the Nationalist Republic of China. Rather than risk another all-out war, the four superpowers have poured their resources into creating superspies known as Levels.
Alix is one of the hottest young American Levels. That’s no surprise: Her dad was America’s top Level before he was captured and killed eight years ago. But when an impulsive decision explodes—literally—in her face, Alix uncovers a conspiracy that pushes her to her limits and could upset the global balance of power forever.
You can read an excerpt here.
Picture Quantum of Solace, or Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Flying bullets, I’d bet, or frenetic chase sequences, or one of the many exceedingly ludicrous yet highly entertaining stunts – dropping off the side of a building, say, or falling off a plane – or you could always go with ridiculously attractive actors on an endless smack-down merry-go-ground. So yep, we all know exactly what we’re getting when we sit down to watch these types of movies – I mean, can you even remember anything about the plot of either movie? – and that, exactly that, is the same thing you’ll get when you sit down to read Blades of Winter, a book that brings a slight genre twist to the ever popular popcorn genre.
So yes, this book is totally ridiculous, but in a fun way. Alix is equal parts young idiot and Terminator, and cover to cover she rampages merrily through an endless parade of bad guys. There is a slight genre twist to the proceedings, in Alix’s “upgrades” – her mechanical body parts that give her near super-human abilities, not to mention her favorite accessory, i.e. her ridiculously versatile high-tech gun – and the story also takes place in an interesting alt-history Cold War America, but the heart and soul of this book is pure action, plain and simple. Nearly every page has Alix either blowing something up or someone away.
Of course, the down side to being action stations all the time is that the characters do tend to get lost in the shuffle. Alix does have a fun air of fallibility, despite her superhero spy skillz - like any normal teenager, she parties, think she knows everything, and loses her head – but while she’s a fine character, she just never really crossed the line from respectable to something truly memorable. Similarly her partner, Trick, and her Mom, Cleo, added nice touches of human interest – particularly in the toll Alix’s (and her father’s) profession take on her Mom – but neither of them ever really developed past the point of general interest. Everyone was fine, but frankly no one stood out.
Similarly, while the world building was interesting – Almasi crams some fun explanations of what happened to make this world so different from our own in “reports” throughout the book (which all in all serve as fairly painless info-dumping) – it felt a bit crammed in, like Almasi was trying to stuff as much as possible into the super-brief respites between fight scenes, mostly to set the stage for the next action sequence. Overall, the story was too hectic to ever fully invest in exploring or explaining its world, so while I liked the bits and pieces, I just never truly got the complete picture.
And as for the plotting – well, honestly, I think calling this story Le Carre esque is, to put it bluntly, false advertising. The plot has some fun reveals, but I did see both major reveals coming from about twenty miles away, and honestly at times I found my attention starting to wander because the action was constantly overpowering the story. Watching Alix be ridiculous was fun, but it also got to be a bit repetitive after a while – and while Almasi does have a nice way with set pieces, the run and jump of it all just started to blur together after a while. The action was so endemic it pretty much strangled any potential room for intrigue, and so the plot was left limping along in the action’s wake – again, to put it bluntly, this story is about pyrotechnics and impossible escapes, not the finer points of espionage. Subtle this book is not.
So in the end, while there is no denying this story is a fun roller coaster ride of pure popcorn entertainment (much like Ghost Protocol), there just wasn’t quite enough purpose to it all to leave me fully satisfied (also how I felt about Ghost Protocol). Sheer escapist fun this may be, but like many an action movie, it just felt a bit hollow at the end – and frankly, I expect more from a book, if only because books have so much more room in which to play (movie scripts are generally only 120 pages long). Still, I do like the potential of this world, and I do enjoy a good action movie, so while I’m not 100% certain I’ll be back for book number two, there is still a pretty good chance I’ll get around to picking up.
Byrt Grade: B+/B
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
Almasi handles his high-octane blend of espionage, alternate history, and coming-of-kick-ass-age debut with an impressively steady hand.
There are some not-so-rosy spots to this story as well, namely the action-oriented approach robs the story of developing its characters beyond its fun approach.