"Health Agent" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press
You're chasing a ghost, Black. – Beak
Written by Jeffrey Thomas
2008, 226 pages, Fiction
Released on January 14th, 2009
I have an interesting relationship with Science Fiction. I like watching it, but I read very little of it. I just can't get into the written word of scifi. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two scifi books I've read: Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow (ironically enough, two of my favorite books). I never could get into the rest of the series, though, nor do very many other books in the genre intrigue me enough to read them. It's admittedly odd, since one of my favorite shows of all time is The X-Files and there's the obvious handle I've chosen. Watching, fine. Reading, meh. So when Raw Dog Screaming Press sent me Health Agent to review, I knew it was going to be an interesting challenge for me to review a genre I typically don't read. Fortunately, it was not a problem.
Taking place on a planet that is not Earth, the book follows health agents Montgomery Black and Opal Cowrie as they effectively get rid of health hazards. When the STD, mustav six-seventy (M-670), starts plowing the city of Punktown at an alarming rate, it is up to Black and Opal to make sure those with the disease are not spreading it. That is either done by having the sufferers “voluntarily” check themselves in to a clinic or, in the case of the opening chapter, putting them down. With the cases on the rise, the two agents certainly have their hands full.
After disposing of a carrier M-670, Black and Opal head to an event by Toll Loveland, a performance artist of questionable taste. Only there as security, the pair see a video that Loveland displays that appears to be a snuff film of none other than Auretta Here. A contractor of M-670, Here had gone underground after getting the STD, only to become a martyr of sorts when videos of her are leaked making claims that the health agency Black and Opal worked for were rounding up and killing those with the disease. Try as they might, the two agents try to catch Loveland, but he gets away and the investigation starts.
The book is divided into three parts: “Cupid of Death”, “Meathearts” and “Black Blizzard”. The first two are the meat of the story, where “Black Blizzard" is more-or-less a twenty page epilogue. What's interesting about the first two parts is they are distinctly different. “Cupid of Death”, while doing both a primo job of establishing the characters and being an overall enjoyable read, feels rushed. It's the first 110 pages of the book, but it could have easily been 70 to 100 pages more. I dug the trip Jeffrey Thomas was taking me on in this first part, but I would have rather he slowed down a bit and took a little more time getting to Loveland's ultimate fate.
Thomas, however, more than makes up for it with “Meathearts”. Without going into potential spoilers, Black is a completely different person from “Cupid of Death” to “Meathearts”, and rightfully so, considering what he went through in the first part. Taking place over a year after the events in “Cupid of Death”, Black no longer lives the action-packed life of a health agent, but rather the slow-paced existence of a magazine salesman in a mall/metro. All of that changes, however, when Toll Loveland creeps back into his life after a chance meeting with an actress. After “Cupid of Death”, Loveland should be the furthest from Black's mind, but things aren't always what they seem (and the book would have ended after part one).
“Meathearts” not only has a much better pace than “Cupid of Death”, it also feels like Thomas is more comfortable with the story. The flow is better, the characters more developed and the story has more emotion. In fact, the two parts are so different that they could almost be read independently, and not much would be lost (although I don't recommend it, as Black's situation in “Meathearts” would not mean nearly as much without “Cupid of Death”).
What's most interesting about the book as a whole, though, is how Jeffrey Thomas takes an incredibly unlikeable character in Montgomery Black and makes you side with him. Black's selfishness and arrogance is borderline disgusting, and this is someone I would normally not care for by any stretch. But as self-centered as Black is, Thomas injects just enough humanity into the agent that you come to hope that Black makes it out okay. This is skilled writing, taking a douchbag of a character and having the reader root for him. Black is less wrapped up in himself in “Meathearts” due to what he went through in “Cupid of Death”, but he still focuses on his own needs and satisfactions than those around him. I have to hand it to Thomas for making me pull for Black, even though I didn't want to.
While there are a variety of non-human characters in the book, the most intriguing are the Stems. Seven foot tall with “...no part of their body larger around than a drinking straw, they consisted of a long central section jointed once at the middle, three jointed legs and three jointed upper limbs.” Uber violent, the Stems in this book play only a minor part as warriors-for-higher, but their descriptions and actions in this work make me want for more of them. Since Health Agent is just but one novel in Thomas' Punktown universe, I am eager to check out other offerings to see more of this ass-kicking matchstick.
Health Agent is great because it's more a pulp-fiction mystery than scifi novel, with blood and guts to boot. The skill of an author is his or her ability to write a good book regardless of the genre. Jefferey Thomas has this ability. As mentioned in the beginning, I'm not a scifi fan when it comes to books, but I'm a fan of well written novels, and I'd eagerly read another Thomas novel, regardless of genre. Unless it's a romance novel.
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