Stormblood is the debut novel of science fiction author Jeremy Szal. It’s a space opera with grimdark edges. Sounds cool, right?
State of Affairs
Stormblood is set in a futuristic world, where humans have taken to the stars. Humanity has just come out of a interstellar civil war between Harmony and The Harvest. Both sides committed atrocities against the other. Harmony just barely managed to pull through, and only because they employed a new type of super soldier: the Reapers.
Vakov Fukasawa is one of those super soldiers. They injected him with an alien virus that gave him super healing and reflexes, but also causes addiction to adrenaline rushes, loss of inhibitions, and even delirium. Now the war is over, and Vakov is battling to keep his supercharged emotions under control. Stormtech, as the alien virus is called, has turned out to be the new drug craze to take the world. The blue tendrils crawling beneath Vakov’s skin now mark him out as a junkie. He hates Harmony for what they did to him and his fellow reapers.
Then, Stormtech users start going out of their mind. Violently. Harmony officers try to recruit Vakov and tell him somebody is poisoning Stormtech. Worse, his brother is involved. He reluctantly agrees. His investigation drags Vakov into the depths of Compass, the giant repurposed asteroid at the center of Harmony space, where he finds a sinister enemy.
Grimdark science fiction
Stormblood is a science fiction story with space opera elements: great empires in space, with alien races working together or against each other in a dramatic epic. Szal has stated Mass Effect as inspirational to his work, and you can see that pretty clearly.
But, the story goes to a darker place. The main character is an addict, with a background of child abuse. The war with Harvest was dark, and some of the flashbacks to that war paint a very bleak picture. In that sense, the story hails back to Richard K Morgan’s Altered Carbon, or even Dan Simmons’ horror stories. The style and first person view resembles the grim-macho-man vibe that Morgan also manages. And the brutal war scenes could be straight out of Warhammer 40K.
So, a mix of bloody war and a cyberpunk-esque space opera. What’s not to like?
I’m serious about that question. I like everything about this book, but I had trouble getting through it. I love the setting, the idea of the Stormtech, and the secret evil organization stuff.
Yet… I found myself putting the book aside often, and had to struggle to the end.
Missing the mark
The thing is: the story pulls its punches. The main character is addicted to adrenaline and stormtech, but at the end of the day… well, he just controls it. I recently read the Inheritance series, where you can really see the main character struggling with addiction and withdrawal. In Stormblood, we only get some hand waves to Vakov wanting Stormtech, but it’s not that bad, and neither are the results when others shoot him up.
As for the dark threat of the sinister organization…
Small spoiler incoming.
The bad guys manage to implement almost all of their schemes, and… well, the results are not as devastating as all that. The same goes for the threat to Vakov and his friends. There’s a lot of threat and foreshadowing, but in the end nobody really gets hurts.
I spoke about this last week, the characters pretend the stakes are high, but that’s just smoke and mirrors. I didn’t really feel it. Worse, the stakes didn’t really go up. The climax doesn’t tie into Vakov’s character arc very well, and at the end of the day, the stakes at the climax are not much different from those the story starts out with.
Finally, the grimdark war sections are all flashbacks. They’re pretty gruesome, but they fall flat for two reasons. The first is that they’re flashbacks. It’s clearly signed as ‘the past’, meaning it suffers from the flashback problem of freezing the actual story. Secondly, there’s no real tension, because we know in advance how things turns out. We know the war ended, and we know who won, and we know Vakov survived. That really saps the punch out of those scenes. Compare that to the brilliant Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley, which manages to paint a much more gripping of war.
Stormblood has a lot of potential. It’s a cool idea, and pretty well written. It unfortunately doesn’t manage to deliver on its promise. And that’s a shame, because it could have been a brilliant book.
That said, it’s not a bad book. It’s a fun story, and well written. I’ve read many a debut novel that was far worse. So, if you like the idea of a grim Mass Effect, go and read this book.