Welcome to the literary OR. We’re going to read some books and see what their made of, take out our story scalpels and start separating ribs to see what gooey, disgusting things are inside. What makes a story tick?
This week’s patient (see what I did there? Implying this will come out weekly… we can hope) is The Dark Intercept by Julia Keller from Tor Teen. Scalpels ready? Let’s dig in.
Keller isn’t new to the scene. She knows her way around a story. Studied at Harvard, taught at Princeton and Notre Dame, and served as a four-time juror for the Pulitzer. She’s got credentials, is what I’m saying. Which makes it all the more surprising that this book was so forgettable.
A week ago when I set out on this endeavor to begin doing reviews, I had a stack of book at the ready. I shortlisted The Dark Intercept due to it’s interesting premise. In a not-too-distant-future, the Earth is on its last leg. A series of wars, first for water, then for minerals, have taken their toll on the planet. Humanity is on its way out the door.
That is until one man steps up to liberate the species. Er, well… some of them, anyway. A New Earth is built, hovering above the old one, a new haven for the wealthy and privileged. Those with means leave the old world, and the rest of humanity, behind and create a utopia in the sky.
Violet Crowley, daughter of New Earth’s President and our POV character, has grown up on New Earth. Now, in her sixteenth year, she works as a computer tech, deploying a complex new technology to the citizens of New and Old Earth to maintain their new way of life.
See, shortly after New Earth was built and the chosen few relocated, The Intercept was born. A massive computer-machine beneath the streets of New Earth, The Intercept catalogs your emotions, storing them away, to be used against you in the future. Early in the first act, Danny Mayhew, renegade cop and Violet’s love interest, has made an unauthorized trip to Old Earth. When faced with the wrong end of a slab gun, a weapon capable of melting a person, Violet deploys The Intercept on Danny’s would-be attacker, leaving him a blubbering mess, reliving the memory of his sister’s death.
This is how the powers-that-be maintain the peace. Step out of line and your own mind, your own memories, your darkest moments become a weapon.
Sounds cool, right? It hits the right beats. It’s Equilibrium meets The Hunger Games. Shady, dark utopia, loss of privacy, messed up class system taken to an evil extreme, what’s not to love? But that’s precisely what does The Dark Intercept in. It’s buried by its own potential. It isn’t enough to have grand ideas, you have to execute on them.
And there are some grand ideas. Keller touches on what it means to be a person, autonomy, equality, freedom versus safety. But none of it lands because none of it feels real. The world building is questionable at best. One is left wondering how something like New Earth was constructed, considering it was necessitated by an Earth left utterly decimated by two mineral wars. But its greatest sin is the characters. Keller fails to make the reader care about any of them. Their motivations don’t have any gravity.
The central conflict of the book revolves around the Rebels of Light, a terrorist group located on New Earth with the mission of shutting down The Intercept and restoring freedom to the people. It’s obvious to the reader (or should be) that these are our heroes. What President Crowley is doing is wrong, on many levels. It’s wrong to leave half of humanity to starve on a desolate and dying planet and it’s wrong to use a person’s private thoughts and painful memories against them. Nothing is worth that price, not even safety.
But The Dark Intercept paints the Rebels of Light as villains throughout. Keller must have known the book couldn’t end this way, must have known that no reader without a certifiable personality disorder could enjoy a story like that, so of course our characters change course, right at the end. But it isn’t earned. The sudden change of heart comes off disingenuous. There’s no emotional weight.
I’ve written before (in Why Your Story Needs a Mech Suit) about setting up the dominoes, about planting the seeds for your story early on so that when they germinate at the end, it has impact. There’s no mech suit here. There are no seeds. Just a paint-by-numbers tale that goes wildly outside the lines.
If you’re reading this book for entertainment, you’d do well to place your chips elsewhere. If it’s for study, it can only be helpful as an example of what not to do. The Dark Intercept is meant to be the start of a trilogy. Based on the events of this first book, I can’t see where it could possibly go and, frankly, I don’t care.
Scalpels down. Time of death: 320 pages.
The Dark Intercept was generously provided for review by Booked on 25th, a local, independent bookseller. The contents of the book (for good or ill) and this review do not represent Booked on 25th or anyone associated. You can visit them on Historic 25th Street in Ogden, Utah or online at their website for all your novel needs.