In Brief: David J. Williams’ first novel in the Autumn Rain trilogy sets a foundation of cyberpunk sensibilities and military sci-fi in 2110. It’s fast, intense, and sometimes murky.
Pros: The Mirrored Heavens features a meticulously well-conceived scenario of future political hegemony and military capabilities. Williams can set a pace and turn a phrase that would make William Gibson or Neal Stephenson proud. And for anyone who ever wondered what combat would entail if Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit became go-to battlefield weaponry – this is your book.
Cons: The white-knuckle pace leaves little time for characterization. Three pairs of characters share the p.o.v. narrative duties, and you may find them blurring together. Because of the similarities and closeness of these characters, we don’t get to see the political situation unfolding, which detracts somewhat from the sense of espionage-type intrigue.
Review: The Mirrored Heavens begins with a detailed timeline of the history of the Second Cold War between the U.S. of North America and the Eurasian Coalition. Reading like the summary of a decent undergrad textbook, the timeline plots out key points in the rise of these two superpowers – their conflicts in Africa and South America, their treaties to avoid all-out warfare, and finally, their agreement over building a structure known as the Phoenix Space Elevator. This elevator allows materials and goods to move beyond the atmosphere and has fostered a new era of lunar settlement and solar system exploration.
The book’s narrative begins with an attack on the Space Elevator by an unknown group. The Americans and Eurasians can’t conceive of this attack not being the work of the other, but as we learn in the opening chapters, a new player called Autumn Rain has entered the scene. We learn this through the eyes of Claire Haskell, one of the American factions top covert razors. She interfaces with the net directly through her nervous system, slicing through software and data like, er, a razor.
Claire teams up with Jason Marlowe, a Mech, or elite soldier in Iron Man-like armor. Claire and Jason have history – they were once lovers. Claire and Jason are both agents of the ultra-paranoid counterintelligence directorate. Claire and Jason have to escape the wreckage of the attack on the Space Elevator’s planetary base in Brazil and figure out what the hell is going on.
Another narrative features a man introduced as the Operative, aka Carson, who’s on his way to the moon on an unidentified mission when he witnesses the attack on the Elevator. Carson, also a mech, soon teams up with his old razor – a man called Lynx who has been in deep cover so long it’s affected his sanity. Carson doesn’t trust him much but has little choice as the American political elites fall on each other back home, leaving him with no handler and only the mission of identifying Autumn Rain’s reach on the Lunar Colony.
The final narrative also has the mech/razor combo: Linehan and Spencer. Linehan is a man of mystery trying to make it out of North America. Spencer is a deep cover Euro-spy, immediately compromised by Linehan’s knowledge of his position. It soon becomes clear that Linehan is linked to Autumn Rain and exceedingly dangerous – willing to sacrifice all kinds of innocent lives to escape. Spencer wants to get him to London for a debrief and somehow survive the fallout.
There are plenty of plot points, and Williams moves along smartly. There’s also lots of combat-style action: escapes and battles in sub-orbit, the amazon, under the ocean, the moon… This author can write near-future high-tech action sequences. Unfortunately this comes at the expense of other important elements.
The story lacks the kind of humanizing characterization present in the best of science fiction. The three main groups of p.o.v. characters are a little too similar in their outlooks, their approaches to problems. Of course you could argue that since all these characters are elite-level operatives and soldiers, they’re bound to be alike; but that doesn’t improve the overall narrative. Claire and Carson develop somewhat more independently than the rest, but the problem is you could open to a chapter and start reading while covering the names and have a hard time figuring which group your with.
Williams introduces an element of unreliability by revealing that many of these characters have had their memories modified and implanted by their various commands: the ultimate paranoid approach to operational security. It’s an interesting concept, and one familiar to the cyberpunk sub-genre, but not particularly novel or unique as utilized in this story. What we’re left with are wooden, often confused main characters who are damned good at reacting to and anticipating dangerous situations, but are very difficult to empathize with. And the heart of effective military or espionage fiction is being able to relate to the characters.
Bottom Line: The action-sequences, complex world-building, and plot posting are all impressive, but they can’t make up for characterization problems. Still a quick and interesting read for fans of this particular style and sub-genre.