The Heretic is a fast read that succeeds in involving the reader from the very first page, and manages enough character development and revelation in its 180 pages (Kindle edition) to give the reader more than just a wild page-turning ride. This it does too though, with the second half delivering some finely crafted hard-action, with a pacing almost literally movie quality (I read the second half of the book in around two hours).
The premise is simple, yet still imaginative: Earth is gone, an organisation known as The Magistratus controls everyone still living on other planets with their Peacekeepers, one small village is about to get ‘justice’ unleashed on it six ways from Sunday for violating the laws of the said organisation, and a shady tradesman with hints of redeeming features is about to head for the very planet people are trying to escape from.
The two interlocking stories of Shepherd and Jordi are deftly intertwined, and the opening scene (from Jordi’s story) is one of the strongest openings I’ve seen from a sci-fi novel. The links between the two stories at first appear situational and later turn out to be deeper than this (no spoilers), and the development of the main characters is beautifully blended in around the race-against-time narrative. Throughout the novel there’s a sense of urgency coming from everyone, yet the pockets of reflection are all there to be enjoyed.
The messages about the idea of freedom and opposition to control are nothing new, nor innovative, and yet remain as human as ever when they appear through Bale’s characters. Shepherd at times evokes a hint of Han Solo, but with less debt problems and a little less who-dares-wins. And he doesn’t have a Wookie. And he’s not impartial to the occasional curse either – his world is a little more grown up than the family appeal Star Wars went for. He’s more of ‘this is what I have, let’s get what I can,’ and when his views on life change slightly he’s utterly convincing, even if predictable, and even though by no means falling in love with anyone yet.
(MINOR SPOILER WARNING FOR NEXT PARAGRAPH)
On that note, it’s no great spoiler when I mention that nobody falls in love in this book, for the simple reason that a female lead character never appears. You could argue that this book doesn’t need one though; there’s very little time for anyone to have romances while saving their necks, and a girl-kicks-ass character wouldn’t have added anything. I did wonder what it might have been like if Bale had written this story with a girl in Jordi’s place, but I can only wonder. Perhaps that’s what I would have done were this my story, but it is not, and Heretic looses nothing from its all-male main cast. I don’t know why, but I get the feeling there will be space for some seriously cool fems later in this series. A glimpse of lost romance might have added something to Shepherd, or a school romance gone begging when half the villagers died for Jordi, but perhaps this sort of thing is for later.
The one big criticism I can make of any of this book is the author’s decision to spoil part of it right from the very first chapter. I can’t discuss with detail, so if you haven’t read the book yet, or at least the first chapter, skip the next paragraph.
(SPOILER WARNING NEXT PARAGRAPH)
The parting of the two brothers at the start of the story would have held a lot more tension if only the author had not inserted the line ‘It was the last time he [Jordi] saw his brother alive.’ I’m not entirely opposed to this sort of technique, but when it’s done with only two characters (as opposed to a group with a line like ‘It was the last time they would ever be together’) there’s a feeling of inevitability throughout the novel that in end, we know a character will die. In sci-fi there can be sometimes be a pretty big ‘BUT’ after a line like that, because being dead doesn’t always mean that person won’t take some other form, but this does not happen with Ishmael. The only real tension surrounding him is how he’s going to end up dying, which I had to guess at, and whether or not Jordi would actually see him die, or see him dead. That much almost saves the idea, but not quite. I would have preferred thinking Ishmael had some sort of chance.
Although I haven’t looked at the other books in the series yet, I feel like Heretic is a book deliberately kept short in order to hook readers into what will become a more complex series with longer books. Perhaps that’s just what I’m hoping for, but equally I could read a whole series of books just like Heretic. Lucas Bale has a skill with conciseness and pacing that many modern sci-fi authors tend to forgo, in favour of large amounts of description, exposition and drawn out battle scenes. Not that I’m arguing one is better than the other, I can read the likes of Hamilton, Baxter and Herbert for hours on end, but Bale’s economical and pacey style really works. Perhaps this is just me because I’ve spent years becoming a seasoned reader of epics, but Bale’s style reminds me of the effective simplicity of the likes of Clifford Simack, Phillip K Dick and Isaac Asimov, but with a supercharger added to the mix. There’s no shortage of description, especially with the ship Soteria (which I really came to like almost as a character in ‘her’ own right….perhaps there is a female lead of sorts after all…), but there’s no blinding with science or writer-showboating in Bale’s style, it’s a masterclass in economy with impact: cut but not dry, to the point but not blunt or empty. My reflections on it put me in mind of what one critic said about Rush’s album Clockwork Angels: all their prowess and technical skill is there, but it never feels showy, even when stuff starts blowing up and some fighter space craft start to come into play as well as the knives and guns.
If you like quick reads that give you something to chew on as well, check out this book and this author. I look forward to reading more.