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#BookReview: Phoenix (The Carter Files #1), by Lori Janeski
From Sci-Fi espionage noir to 80s action thriller in one book
Phoenix is a difficult novel to introduce. It is the first (and so far only) novel by Lori Janeski. It goes through several genres within a well-developed sci-fi setting.
We start with a buddy cop genre as mismatched as Lethal Weapon, a initial terrorist mystery that looks like 24, until it turns into a battle royale and running shootout during a motorcycle chase.
Division 7 cop David Carter has strayed too close to the line once too often, so he’s saddled with rookie agent Veronique de Tournay to observe him and see just how over the line he is. What starts as a stopping a single terrorist incident spirals into a rabbit hole that bounces around five different planets, fighting off multiple threats, stalked every step of the way by a Bond villain masterminding everything behind the scenes, as well as his pet psychopath.
The book is written very much as a police or espionage procedural with two primary points of view, both from our leads. There are occasional asides to the primary henchman, who is coocoo for Cocoa Puffs. Janeksi’s characters tend to think through and observe everything. While she never reaches the level of depth that Tolkien does, it’s clearly what she’s shooting for.
There are elements of the first half of the story that feels like if Robert Ludlum or Mickey Spillane wrote scifi cops instead of spies and PIs. Go to planet A, get shot at, stop terrorists, get information; go to planet B, repeat. Then we get halfway through the novel and it turns into an 80s action movie. We even get a motorcycle chase.
Frankly, my only complaint with the book is that the third act drags a little. But it’s also the end of a 200,000 word book, so I may have been the one dragging. Whatever you do, don’t drop this one on your foot.
Take the buddy cop genre but IN SPACE!
David Carter at first glance looks like your standard burnout with a tragic past (either that or Dirty Harry Callahan) but it’s not the standard tragic past. He has a fondness for classics, and old technology. He prefers physical books to readers, and he prefers his 1911 to plasma guns. Background? Basic blue collar.
Veronica de Tournay is a rookie who reads people’s faces like others read a billboard. She comes from a French wealthy family on her mother’s side, and her father used to be the spymaster of Department 7. She’s the scalpel to Carter’s lead pipe.
The fun part is what each ends up learning from each other. And it’s a lot more than Riggs and Murtaugh ever learned from each other in Lethal Weapon.
The secondary characters are all vivid, down to the Bond henchman Ludendorff, who is in a battle of doing the dozens with Carter … only they do it with trading insults from Richard III.
Even our Bond villain is entertaining, in a deranged psychopath sort of way.
The world here is built as the story goes along, but this story goes along for 200,000 words and thus there is a lot of world building to go with it. From the Manichean terrorists who speak in Aramaic to weather control satellites to the new technologies that could level entire cities if things go wrong.
The culture is also interesting, including the world government painted as being heavily libertarian, as well as very Dominican (the Order of Preachers, not the Dominican Republic).
It was almost Tolkien deep, but avoiding all of the pitfalls of diving too deep. There are a whole collection of little details along the way, like the IRA (Independent Republic Armada). Or the J Carter Irish Pub (With the Warlord of Mars lunch special). The future of New Orleans is darkly entertaining, but I am a sick, sick man.
There is some in-world politics that is almost analogous to modern politics, but there are maybe five pages of it. Then things blow up again and we can all get on with our lives.
None, really. There may be some cussing, but not much. There is limited bloodshed. Heck, one bad guy gets taken out with a headshot by a Colt 1911, and there isn’t even a description of a gory mess afterwards.
Who is it for?
Do you like smart science fiction stories that think their way through problems, like Timothy Zahn?
Do you like John Ringo levels of action?
Do you like solid world building like David Weber?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then you should have bought this book already.
Why buy it
If Robert Ludlum wrote a scifi noir mystery that turned into an 80s action film, with a depth of writing on par with Tolkien and romance subplot that looks like Castle. Add a touch of the film Magnum Force. Tell me that doesn’t sound like fun.