Sunday, May 28, 2006

Review: Forbidden Cargo

Look no further sci fi readers, anime fans, and casual video gamers, because this is your summer reading book.

Rebecca K. Rowe's Forbidden Cargo is a fun page-turner that's heavy on the action.

Despite what the preview may have readers think, this is not a Space Opera. It seems more casual cyberpunk. In places, it brings Neal Stephenson's excellent Snow Crash to mind, but Forbidden Cargo is a less ambitious story with a tidier ending. A little bit Final Fantasy, a little bit Armitage, even a touch of TRON.

Two female nanogens from Mars are kidnapped and brought to Earth. There they become tangled up in a political power play and the after-effects of a morally questionable experiment with smart-intelligence. They search for each other and a way to return home while getting involved with fly games, religious movements, and love.

On the whole the plot is solid. It contains twists and turns that are usually explained. Rowe has a lot of characters, and the book spends chapters with each one. This allows Rowe to move the individual threads forward while never losing sight of where her characters are.

However, for the first one hundred pages the effect is a bit disconnecting. It isn't until the plotlines begin to combine that I feel I have enough time with each character to settle into their story.

My favorite plotlines revolve around the Cadet, Sashimu and Prometheus. These are Rowe's interesting and well-developed characters. Their personal and intersecting plotlines prove the most enjoyable to read. They deal with the Cadet's quest and gaming career, Sashimu's attempts to locate her "sister," and an AI trying to solve a koan.

Whenever Eastern philosophy is presented to western readers who aren't familiar with it there's an opportunity for confusion. Rowe, however, shines. She handles the potentially complicated matter with grace and ease granting it a satisfying and comprehensive conclusion. Rowe also combines Greco-Roman and Japanese mythos to create a fusion mythology that subtly yet effectively works within her story. I particularly enjoyed her use of tengu and kappa, finding the instances added to the anime atmosphere of the book.

Unfortunately, Forbidden Cargo occasionally suffers from the problems of most summer blockbusters that are heavy on the action.

The romantic subplots are predictable, but provide necessary motivation. This is worth mentioning, as in other places character motivations seem undeveloped or unexplained, which results in character behaviour reading as a tad contrived. Hopefully the fast-moving plot will keep most readers from noticing these instances.

For the most part the dialogue is tight—simplistic. There's a lack of flowery speech in future Denver. The language becomes formal when appropriate—usually when characters speak to members of authority or persons of higher class. Various exchanges throughout the book suffer from slightly weak dialogue. Although it's not necessarily "bad," it's it's not "great," either.

The exception is by far the best writing in the book, and I hope you'll indulge me as it's worth sharing:
"My dream was to paint his soul alive. Once, Prometheus and I sought to force things into light; now we sink into infinite darkness."


Most of the concerns I found while reading this book were basic debut novel blues. Awkward structure, incorrect grammar—that sort of thing. While they distract me from reading, they're forgivable in a first novel.

However, the one thing that I could not overcome is the names. For example, the main protagonist's name is "Sashimu." "Sashimu" is obviously composed of Japanese phonetics, but my attempts to translate it fail because it's not a real name. It is, however, one letter off sashimi (raw fish,) which I constantly misread the name to be.

I think the issue with "Sashimu" comes from how isn't pleasant to say. It's awkward, and its failure to roll off the tongue trips up your brain as you read it. The same can be said for "Imagofas," the name that Rowe gives to the nanogens.

I'm also concerned by the amount of acronyms that riddle the book. Mostly they're fine and I can see how they add to the world. However, some of them are a little cheesy and read like meanings were attached after the acronym was decided. ICK being the example that immediately springs to mind.

Despite these issues, I enjoyed reading Forbidden Cargo and I felt mostly satisfied with its ending. The moments of greatness outweigh the awkward names. I would definitely read the next novel Rowe writes.

Forbidden Cargo is available now from Edge, and and will be on in August 2006.

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