Upcoming from .
Broken by Susan J. Bigelow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am lucky enough to have an ARC of Broken, the upcoming release from e-publisher Candlemark & Gleam, on my Kindle. Thank you to Kate for giving me a chance to read this upcoming title.
I read this book in a single sitting. I’d already whetted my appetite for it with the sample chapters available on Candlemark & Gleam’s website (include link), and couldn’t stop thinking about them. So, I approached the book with a hunger that had to be sated all at once.
Michael Forward sees possible futures. Most of them include him being given guardianship of a young child, a child who can either make or break the world. His visions also include Broken, once Silverwyng, a former super hero turned street rat. He promises her that, should she help him, her lost ability to fly will return.
With only that dim hope to guide her, Broken decides to throw her lot in with Michael’s, and they journey with the baby they name Ian towards the future, the future where Ian brings all warring factions together in peace.
Of course, there are many forces who want Ian so they can raise him to be the great dictator they prefer, and therein lies the thrust of the novel. Michael, Broken, and eventually Monica dodge government enforcers, make friends with crazed revolutionaries, deal with hunger, cold and the challenges of having a child in their care on their journey towards the idyllic planet Valen and the shining future
Michael can still see for Ian there, no matter the challenges he and his friends face.
What truly stands out to me about this book is the atmosphere. Sparsely detailed, the scarcity of description feels deliberate rather than like an oversight. The sense of snow and deepening twilight skies hangs over everything. The tension is likewise pervasive, subdued, building quietly so that the few exultant or frightening moments you do get are all the more powerful.
The author has a tendency for taking the expected and remaking it to her own ends. We learn that Broken, a super hero who has since lost her ability to fly and fallen on hard times, loves cats. Normally I think I would find this device cheap, but in Bigelow’s hands I find myself empathizing with Broken when she finds a cat, murdered by the antagonistic Black Bands, in an alley.
Bigelow continues in the tradition of Watchmen and some of the grittiest Batman graphic novels, creating a dystopian super hero future (where aliens, alien politics and traditions also complicate matters) rather than subscribing to a more idyllic notion of those with extraordinary powers. There is no shining Captain America here, even if Sky Ranger, the head of the Extrahumans, strives to be like him. (and mostly fails)
In Bigelow’s world, the fascist regime has the power, those super heroes still conforming to their regulations acting more like government enforces than the vigilante dispensers of justice we’ve become used to in other works. The thread of identity is a delicate but complete thread throughout the book, as one of the most basic concepts of the genre, the super hero identity, is assigned in this world rather than chosen.
It is clear from the tone and what happens to the main characters that there is no safe place for those who want to live outside those rules, but one of the masterful things about this book is that as soon as you are about to become bogged down by hopelessness and tragedy, Bigelow gives you a little shining moment of peace, like the familiar golden glow from the windows of a home where you might rest for the night. I think it is important to give readers a place to breathe, and this book does that very well.
Michael Forward, the man who helps drive the story along with the eponymous Broken, is a classic example of the hero who does not want his destiny. This is summed up with an exchange between Broken and their friend, Monica, when Monica asks why Michael cares about saving humans when he doesn’t seem to get along with most of them. Broken simply replies that he does so because he can. The power of individuals to affect change is also a well realized theme here, and it is what keeps us cheering for our ragged band of main characters.
HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
The pacing is both good and bad. In places it is just right, choppy flashbacks interspersed with current reality in a way that is gripping. The beginning is wonderful, crammed with details that inspire further reading. However, towards the end, once Michael makes his decision and the major plot points are mostly resolved, we descend in to details that, frankly, I think could have been cut. Some of the tension—will Broken really fly, as Michael has seen in his visions?—is lost because this section drags in to mundane details.
I would have liked to see more of a connection with the man the women eventually give Ian to. The narrative never explains him, so he is simply convenient. In a way this works with the story, which is all about being disconnected from one’s self, other people, the divide between alien and human, but I would have liked some of that connective tissue to carry through here.
Some of the visuals are beautiful. As Broken begins to remember her past, she recalls the moment she realized she had super powers. Her healing factor comes about when she is pinched by a crab and her finger regrows, and that sky blue crab looms larger and larger in her memory with each recollection. Because the scenery otherwise is so gritty, it stands out for us too, sky blue in a setting otherwise made up of gray concrete and slush.
The subtle creepiness in this story is nicely shown when Michael, Broken and Ian meet Jaenene, a woman able to project an aura of peace. However, it is all too easy for Michael to sink in to that aura and lose sight of his goal. This is a nice analogy for how many people give up their freedoms to fascist governments, lulled in to a sense of security by empty promises.
All of Bigelow’s main characters, often heroic against their wills and desires, have feet of clay. But some rise above, realizing that in the struggle between freedom and fascism it isn’t the relative comfort of the people that matters, but rather our right to do what we like with our futures. Michael’s power of prescience shows us that there is no preordained straight path, only possible ends that are always in flux.
Broken is a smart, readable book, and despite some minor pacing issues I recommend it. It’s a well thought out contribution to dystopian super hero fiction, and I encourage everyone to immerse themselves in the thoughtful landscape and characters that, despite their rags and alcoholism and other trappings of desperation, manage to make you invest in them not in spite of these flaws, but because of them.
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