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*I received an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review*

Mind Breach is the book I never thought I would get my hands on. At least for a while. Its author, in a move worthy of some of his characters, disappeared out of the digital world for the best part of a year, not long after a conversation where he told me he had a 120,000 word draft of the book almost ready to go. He resurfaced with the story of how the book nearly broke him a couple of months ago. I’ll open the review on a good note: it was truly worth the wait.

Let’s get one bugbear out of the way: it’s been so long since I read the first book that this one could really have done with a ‘What’s Gone Before’ section. Yes, I managed to jumpstart my brain without one, and I guess it shows that I enjoyed its prequel Time Heist enough that I was paying attention to the detail and characters, but it was rather like taking a refresher test of exams I took years ago and trying to jump straight to an A grade again. (Be kind next time, Anthony…give me a revision class in Unity 101!)

Two years ago, I opened my review of Time Heist by saying it was a clever book. Mind Breach excels it, but in a very different way. To start with, it’s an even pacier read. The chapters feel shorter (even though I don’t think they actually are) and the action simply sails effortlessly through one scene after another. The pace is always spot on, with no one moment dwelled in for too long even during the reflective sections.

To deepen everything, the ideas about what it means to choose sides in a confusing world that punctuated Time Heist between its almost relentless actions scenes go further here, with a number of engaging parallels being drawn between a now even larger set of characters. Hard to explain this without spoilers, but lets just say that there are certain one liners later in the book that strike these chords brilliantly, without stating the obvious to the reader. They’re just subtle hints to the reader, and then they’re gone again, pulling them back into the action.

Anthony Vicino’s writing style has improved. The sort of hyperbole in Time Heist which led to my comment about the author having never met a simile he didn’t like comes back at the start of this book, and then by the middle is dispensed with in a favour of a more certain, less exaggerated and yet more emotional narrative. But while in the action, there’s a chase scene in the middle that will rival anything you could go see on a cinema screen, and held my attention even more than Time Heist’s finest moments.

This is a book that seemed to be playing for the emotional core in a way that Time Heist lacked, and for a while I was torn between a four and a five star review because I wasn’t sure if it really succeeded in doing that for me. Many characters felt like real enough people and yet simultaneously pawns in a chess game I was supposed to care about more – the narrative still held my interest more than the people for a good 2/3 of the book. One character, Queen, seemed to exist just to irritate me. Another one, Joker, although very different from his Batman/Suicide Squad namesake, left me with a somewhat inescapable mental picture of him despite the differences. (The Castle characters do function on a certain level of understandably nuts, after all.) The characters who were supposed to be the most torn between sides, namely Mika Frost and Daniel Brandt, seemed conflicted and yet too resolute.

And then came the slight of hand that tipped this into five start territory. I can’t spoil it by going into much detail, but lets just say that one big development towards the 85% mark that I thought was going to leave me with a seriously sour taste in my mouth was then developed and pulled off in a way that made me give Mind Breach the benefit of the doubt. The book ends with the characters central to this twist still with unresolved issues that smack of threequel baiting, but it’s the best kind there is.

Oh yeah, and around the same time, there’s a superb bit of dialogue-backstory from one character which will linger in my memory for a long time. No spoilers, but I’m nicknaming it Anthony’s Haruki Murakami moment…anyone who’s read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle will know which part I mean when they get to it…spectacularly grim but this time with an SFF twist to go with the horror.

During my reading, I highlighted enough one-liners and loaded paragraphs to make me want to spend at least another couple of hours ransacking this book for themes. In a world where the truth in politics and the debates about social inequality are all the more important, it strikes a very deep chord and yet is never preachy or overtly political. It has its own brand of subtlety buried under a sea of relentless action that in a movie would perhaps take the focus, yet the book gives way to the heart beneath it.

Okay, let’s really blow the smoke then. I’ll dare say it: I read Neuromancer earlier this year and felt surprisingly uninspired by it. Reading Mind Breach made me finally work out why: it played for the emotional and political core and for me missed on both counts, no matter how well written it was or how it defined a genre at the time. Mind Breach succeeds for me where Neuromancer failed. If cyberpunk is sleepy rather than dead, then this is a book that I hope will wake it and its fans up.