As soon as I heard “alien biotech virus injected into soldiers”, I knew I had to pick up Jeremy Szal‘s Stormblood. The following is an unbiased review of this book. Thank you Gollancz for the ARC!
TWs for: abuse, beating, self-harm, ptsd, addiction, torture, graphic war scenes, death.
|Series: The Common #1||Genre: Military Sci-Fi|
|Date of Publishing: June 4th 2020||Publisher: Gollancz|
Vakov Fukasawa used to be a Reaper, a biosoldier fighting for the intergalactic governing body of Harmony against a brutal invading empire. Now, he fights against the stormtech: the DNA of an extinct alien race Harmony injected into him, altering his body chemistry and making him permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression. It made him the perfect soldier, but it also opened a new drug market that has millions hopelessly addicted to their own body chemistry.
But when Harmony tells him that his former ally Reapers are being murdered, Vakov is appalled to discover his estranged brother is likely involved in the killings. They haven’t spoken in years, but Vakov can’t let his brother down, and investigates. But the deeper he goes, the more addicted to stormtech he becomes, and Vakov discovers that the war might not be over after all. It’ll take everything he has to unearth this terrible secret, although doing so might mean betraying his brother. If his own body doesn’t betray him first.
“But humanity’s greatest vices have always been the ones most likely to kill you.”
Any book that opens up with a heist is bound to capture my attention.
Stormblood grows beyond its thrilling beginning to deliver a story exploring the traumatic coils of war left behind long after its end.
Behind the smoking guns of the great conflict of this book are Harmony and Harvest. This latter, a bloodthirsty, self-established government faction, sought to attain the DNA remnants of the Shenoi, a long-extinct alien race.
Harmony weaponized it into its soldiers, painting their veins blue to amp up aggressive behavior to an uncontrollable rage. They named them Reapers and their violent victories gave the war its name.
The Reaper War ravaged planets and homelands, and long before the military forces of Harmony have scourged the Harvest dissidents off the map, the pain of it forever lingers in its people.
Now a drug freed into society, this virus, commonly called stormtech, seeps into the charred scars of Compass. This asteroid made the capital of the galaxy battles an addiction that endangers its citizens, a storm of aggression, physical effort, and risk-taking.
Vakov Fukasawa is a man who bears his own scars close to the surface. He was once a Reaper, and though he has since undergone rehab, in many ways he remains one.
When we meet him he’s just an ordinary man with remnants of alien biotech in his bloodstream, purloining secrets from people who eat eyeballs for breakfast. It’s an average Sunday for someone living in the lower echelons of Compass.
Much like its inhabitants, this asteroid still bears the charred scars of war.
Like all capitals, it is a world in itself; a stratified place where the richest carve their homes on top while the lower passageways are reserved for more shady characters.
Compass is a fascinating high tech city. A cacophony of peoples, tubes, floors wired with life-support systems programmed for specific alien species, hidden secrets, addiction, smuggling, and good old fashioned danger.
“Between the spikes of ships, the mammoth asteroid was barnacled with entry docks, spaceports, berths, stockyards, array towers, mooring gantries, hangars, surface facilities and hubs that were home to scores of defense weaponry.”
One feels like they could get lost in its innumerable tunnels and ecosystems, but none do it so as Vakov.
Propelled by his ambition to get his friend Grim a residency card, Vakov bites off more than he can chew during a high-risk job and once more finds himself with a mouthful of Harmony.
Recruited once more to clean up their dirty work, the former Reaper now turns his incessant methods towards detective work. Someone has been tampering with the stormtech reserves used in rehab centers, causing violent Blue Outs that lead to the murder of civilians. Someone intimately connected to Vakov, a ghost from his past.
With its name sullied by the use of stormtech during the war, Harmony longs to clean up its slate in the eyes of the Common, and Vakov is the overly convenient broom close at hand and easily grasped. Except there’s always that annoying line of dust you can’t quite sweep and there’s always something more to a mystery than what lies above its surface.
As we spiral up and down the floors of Compass, we’re not only thrown into an underground of corruption and crime, we are irrevocably caught in a hurricane of blaster bolts, volleys of gunfire, and high-speed brutality.
Every time Vakov steps into a room you’re biting your nails and crossing your fingers because this guy sure has a way of getting himself slashed, shot, tortured, overall hurt in imaginative ways.
He’s the kind of guy that makes you just want to buy him a drink and give him a break, the underdog with a harsh exterior and a heart of gold that you just love to root for.
“But caring for someone means doing what’s best for them, even when it hurts, even when it scars.”
I guess Szal had other plans because although Vakov does get his much-needed cocktails more than once he also gets and gives more than one hell of a beating.
Sometimes these fights read as too mechanical in an “I hit, I ripped, I shot, I slashed” narrative, while there’s also some in-scene war action that, although of clear purpose, retracts from the focus of the plot. 1st person POVs are tricky like that. It doesn’t completely detract from the enjoyability of reading but often it broke the flow of the story.
What’s undeniable is that Stormblood’s action is not for the faint of heart. It’s precise high-caliber artillery ready to burst a hole in your chest. It’s almost as if every scene is playing out in a video game, you can experience the stealth chases, the fights, the cutscenes vivid with the noise of a futuristic city, packed with sensorial overload as only a sci-fi landscape can be.
The worldbuilding is riveting, a thing of wonder. Szal carves one humongous asteroid with an equally enormous amount of cultures, technology, and societal structures that merit their own dictionary.
Guns that autoprint ammo, biochemically and physiologically altered human-animal hybrids, varied alien species, a panoply of AI applications— from AIs that can be infused with the mind of a person, to AI-altered rooms that are literally a person—, all of this coalesces into a diverse, colorful, magnetic world that snags your attention and wonder.
This expansive world is populated with the raw and intimate concerns of its characters. It’s a story that dissects war in all its aspects; its cruelty, its repercussions, its surplus prejudices.
It speaks its own language, critiquing military propaganda in marginalized, underprivileged communities, exploring the ravaging psychological consequences on its soldiers, the way it happens behind closed doors, in hushed decisions that pick and prod at more than one type of battlefield, leaving behind husks to be tended to.
“We’re all broken, no question about it. But, for now, we’re still human, and we’re going to make what we do count.”
Vak encapsulates the story perfectly; a scarred man, a plundered man, someone deeply devastated by his PTSD but still fighting for a semblance of hope and unity in the world. In running from his hurts, his past, and his fears, he risked embodying them. Now backed into a corner, how much does he still have to lose to the razing effects of the stormtech swirling blue under his skin?
If you’re in for high-caliber military action, a developed tech world brimming with spacefaring cultures, and a raw portrayal of the fallouts of war and addiction, Stormblood is the book to satisfy all your hungers.
And at the end of it all lies the whisper of a greater threat prowling its way through the galaxy, ravenous for the vulnerable remains of Compass…