“Halkskin” – by Tony Bertauski

Cover ImageBiomites. Artificial stem cells, revolutionary in the treatment of almost everything – repairing or enhancing. But at what point does the artificial overwhelm the natural? At what point to we replace ourselves with our invention? What does it mean to remain human in an in-human age?

Halfskin is, at its heart, a techno-thriller. The main character targeted for death by an almost dystopian society because of the technology within him. However, I think the author is also painting in shades of grey to an extent.

Biomites are invented for medical reasons – rapid healing, saving lives; stem cells that replicate to repair the body, like a self-sustaining robot army for good. It’s soon discovered that Biomites are also useful for enhancing – improving intelligence, strengthening the body, reversing the ageing process.

It’s not difficult to understand that such an invention is going to cause some societal issues. In our story, moral lobbying helps introduce some extreme laws that state a Biomite composition of over 40% leads to quarantine and 50% results in a form of execution – or as the law states “shutting down”. Nix, our main character is stuck in this web of legislative murder. As a young boy his life is saved after an horrific car crash by a massive injection of Biomites, but as the Biomites replicate over the years and the new laws are introduced, Nix finds himself quarantined on what would be called Death Row – if the law still considered him human. It’s easy for the reader to smart at the injustice of Nix’s fate, to brand those protecting humanity as inhuman and the author does a great job of playing that angle. However, again, I don’t think the message is one-sided.

The author intersperses the action with small news stories or fragments of history that briefly touch upon the invention of the Biomite and a small sample of events that might start to explain how laws of selective “culling” could be introduced: the spelling bee where impossibly difficult words for a child are being spelled with ease, the baseball game with the baseball pitcher with almost super strength in his throwing arm, a number of events that would, over time, turn public opinion against those with Biomites.

What was fascinating to me was not so much how society might have reacted in the story, but how I would have reacted in a similar situation. The questions begin to float off the page:

“Are these super beings actually human?”

“If not, how do we protect ourselves from an in-human race?”

I found this to be a rather chilling aspect of the novel. We are presented with a main character and his older sister who are essentially the heroes of the novel, fighting the injustice of the laws and trying to escape their fate. It is easy to invest in them, follow them through the story and hope that they succeed. However, I was left with a nagging feeling, despite my sympathetic reaction, that perhaps I was on the wrong side.

I liked that the novel made me examine my reactions to the characters and the context of the story. I find it refreshing to have a response slightly more complex than “hero = good, villain = bad” and I think Halfskin delivered on this well. I liked the pacing and the more mind-bending elements; the discovery that the main characters can exert a kind of control over Biomites leads to some interesting scenes and one rather large twist.

There were a few things here and there that didn’t satisfy me quite as much as I would have liked. I found the ending petered out rather than closing confidently. It almost felt that the author had decided to make this part of a trilogy towards the end of the writing and it became important to have an ending that was merely a pause between novels. It wasn’t a cliffhanger and there is some closure – but it just felt a little limp to me. I would have much preferred this to remain a standalone novel foregoing a sequel. It’s a personal reaction, but one that I couldn’t shake off.

The novel was well written. However, I did feel that there were enough typos for me to think this required an extra proof-read. None of the errors really damaged the telling of the story, so it’s more of a minor quibble. But I thought it worth noting for those who are adamant that released novels should be error free.

Overall, I was satisfied with this novel. Last year I read and reviewed The Annihilation of Foreverland by the same author (review here) and I was similarly happy. The author creates stories that I want to read, an important talent for a novelist. I’m sure I’ll read more of his work in the future.

Rating: 4/5

Price at the time of review: $0.99 US

Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Diesel

Author site: http://bertauski.com/
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16193991-halfskin?ac=1

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