“Brilliance” by Marcus Sakey – more thriller than science fiction

brillianceI was puzzled to find a quote from Lee Child, who writes the Jack Reacher books, on the cover of this science fiction novel. After I finished “Brilliance” I was clear on why Child was on the cover, Brilliance is much closer to a Jack Reacher story than a typical science fiction novel. Given that Lee Child described “Brilliance” as “the kind of story you’ve never read before.”  I can only assume he rarely reads science fiction and never goes near graphic novels.

“Brilliance” is set in an alternative modern-day USA, in a reality where, since the 1980’s, one percent of the population have been born “gifted” with genius level abilities that leave normal people in the dust. The alternative USA is much like our USA, so naturally the reaction of the government to the “gifted” is to co-opt the ones they can use and declare the rest to be security threats that are targeted for execution.

The main twist in “Brilliance” is that our hero, one of the gifted, is working for the government, tracking down and killing his own kind. This behaviour is not unusual in fiction or in real life but I found the reason for it difficult to credit – patriotism.

Our hero is brilliant at reading body language and recognising patterns. He’s married. He has two children. He seems rational. Yet he spends his time following orders and killing people. At the start of the book, he’s a sort of mutant Jack Bauer, unquestioningly loyal and willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his mission. Perhaps this doesn’t seem implausible in America, but to me, this kind of behaviour suggests either mental illness or a self-serving refusal to take accountability for his actions. I spend much of the first half of the book hoping the hero would be put out of my misery.

Of course, in the end, our hero realises that he has been used by evil men to do evil things (Well, DUH! Like that’s a surprise when you’re working for one of the US intelligence services) and has to dig himself out of the hole he’s in.

I still didn’t like him but I was intrigued to know how he was going to defeat the all-powerful bad guys (just like in the Jack Reacher novels).

I enjoyed the novel as a thriller. The pace was good, the action scenes worked and the plot took the right number of twists. As science fiction it added nothing new but it held its own. I thought the Academy system used to control the gifted children was clever, plausible and truly evil. I also liked the way our hero was forced to rethink his position (or perhaps think honestly for the first time) as he is brought into contact with the people he has been hunting.

The dialogue is sometimes a little flat and the novel reads a little too much like a movie script, but it was a fun read that kept my attention.

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