Book review: Runner by Patrick Lee

A couple of years ago, I read Patrick Lee’s debut trilogy, consisting of The Breach, Ghost Country, and Deep Sky. It was a new breed of fiction for me: the structure and feel of your run-of-the-mill action/thriller novel, but wrapped around the chewy gooey center of a science-fictional premise/MacGuffin. I enjoyed the heck out of them, and when I heard that he was writing another novel (albeit one unrelated to the trilogy) I was sold, sight-unseen.

Fast-forward to October 2013, and while perusing the latest offerings from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, what do I stumble across but a new novel from Patrick Lee! I was excited, but even better, I was fortunate enough to land a copy for review.

The blurb was inoffensively generic, bordering on cliché: Ex-military man takes in a girl on the run from bad guys trying to kill her. I wondered if this was to be a straight-up thriller this time, or if Lee would manage to work in a SF angle; I assumed the former, but held out hope for the latter. All the while figuring it would be a wild ride either way.

I love it when I’m right.

Sam Dryden is an ex-special forces operative who lost his wife and child in an accident a while back. Recently he’s been having bouts of insomnia, and has taken up midnight jogs along the boardwalk. One fateful night, he runs into Rachel, a 12-year-old girl being hunted by a squad of armed men. Naturally, Dryden decides to help her. But Rachel is more than she seems: not only does she have the uncanny ability to read minds, but her drug-induced amnesia hides a terrifying secret.

Science fiction it is, then—and Lee even throws some pseudo-scientific explanations for Rachel’s telepathic powers (but then, I’m no biologist.) But beyond that, he teases out the ramifications of such an ability: if telepathy actually existed, how would the military-industrial complex seek to utilize it? Lee’s answer is both horrifying and depressingly realistic. Most importantly, it’s wildly entertaining.

The pace Lee sets for the book is a breathless one. The action starts right on page two, and hardly lets up from there. The entire first chunk of the book is an extended chase sequence, and even when you think you can stop and take a breath, there’s a massive twist or turn on the next page to keep you reading. In fact, the only criticism I have of the book is those sections where the pace actually does slow down: these sequences shift away from Dryden and Rachel to show what is essentially the “bad” guys’ side of things. Much of the insight into the military’s use of telepathic powers is revealed in these sections, and though they all end up tying together at the end, they don’t do a lot to advance the plot at that moment. In any other book, it wouldn’t bother me like it did here; but in a book this relentlessly-paced, such a noticeable slowdown is harder to forgive. But this is a minor gripe for a book that is still nigh-impossible to put down.

Probably what most impressed me, though, was the emotional layer Lee was able to squeeze in. I got a hint of it in his Breach books, but here…well, here it may have seemed a bit manipulative at first (guy loses his own child, then takes in a young girl on the run? Where do you think this could be going?) but Lee totally makes it work. The ending does much of the heavy lifting in this regard: instead of wrapping everything up all happily-ever-after like you might expect, Lee goes for the truer, more realistic approach, and the whole work is the more powerful for it. The last page in particular not only made me mist up a little, but actually had me flipping back to the first page to reread how it all started. Great stuff.

Runner will be out in February. Get it. Read it. And whatever Patrick Lee decides to write next, I’ll be in line for that, too, no questions asked. [4 out of 5 stars]

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