The4thDave Reviews: “Written in Fire” by Marcus Sakey

[I first wrote about the Brilliance saga here, after reading the first two books in the series. You can click the link in the description for my brief take on the first two books in the trilogy.]

The Brilliance saga takes place in an alternate reality, in which 1% of the population born after 1980 was born with a genetic mutation that gave them special abilities. While these differences brought new advancements in culture and technology, they also brought a growing tension. What if people with these enhanced abilities wanted to turn them against the rest of us normal folks? How do we keep that from happening? What are we willing to do to stop or prevent them from taking over?

These questions are the driving force behind this thrilling series. The main character is Nick Cooper, a US government operative in an agency created specifically to deal with these “abnorm” threats. Throughout the books, Cooper is on the trail of John Smith, a charismatic “Brilliant” with an unbelievable mind for military strategy, a host of loyal followers willing to die for his cause, and a vendetta against the society that forced him into government-run institutions that took gifted children from their homes and brainwashed them to become trained killers.

Along the way, Cooper also encounters Erik Epstein, a Brilliant who manipulated the stock market to create the largest fortune in the world, and used his billions to buy up a large chunk of Wyoming and create what he hoped would be a Utopian refuge for other Brilliants, a technological marvel where they can live their lives free of oppression from outsiders. However, at the end of the second book, A Better World, this safe haven (called the New Canaan Holdfast) is attacked by the US military, and Epstein retaliates, setting up what seems to be an inevitable war between Normals and Brilliants.

I had really been looking forward to the final book, Written in Fire, ever since I finished the other two. Now that I’ve read it? …Eh. I liked it well enough, but I can’t really recommend it, both from a story-telling and a content perspective.

[From this point forward, spoilers abound.]

Sakey’s books touch on a lot of big ideas that we wrestle with in the 21st century: the nature of terrorism, and what can and should be done to prevent it; the way societies treat those who are different; the nature of human evil, and its source; the human cost of war, and the physical and psychological damage that it does. All of these themes are worth exploring in depth, and Sakey manages to address them all to one degree or another, through this narrative.

However, as interesting and exciting as the plot is, his take on these ideas just doesn’t resonate. Maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe I’m asking too much. But Sakey seems to touch on each of these themes without saying anything new or thoughtful about them. The deeper themes the books try to address are touched on at some level, but not really fleshed out. He resorts to some basic stereotypes and tropes (nationalistic/right-wing militiamen as trigger-happy killers, rednecks, and rapists; a villain who cribbed Magneto’s plans from X-Men; eeeeeevil Secretary of Defense using war for his own ends).  The first book played with the paradox of terrorist/freedom-fighter, but in the end, John Smith was just a megalomaniac. The symbolism of Brilliants as [insert oppressed group here] was just too heavy-handed, and when normal people started randomly lynching Brilliants, I think the author was going for “shocking” and “prophetic” but it just felt flat and predictable. An ending that could have been shocking or heart-breaking ends up feeling a bit tedious and ordinary. The “big speech” moment at the end is a string of anti-war cliches. Cooper’s wife gets a taste of the world he’s had to live in, but we get no follow-up on that. And when I finished the last chapter, I felt rather ambivalent about it all.

Look, I loved the concept Sakey developed in this series. He took a lot of disparate elements from other media and put them together in an interesting way. He created a main character that was conflicted and interesting in his own right (a Brilliant hunting other Brilliants for an agency that kept him in the dark about its true motives), but all of Cooper’s uniqueness was drained in this last book and replaced with general action-hero dialogue and unnecessary internal conflict about who he wanted to be with more, his ex-wife or his ex-terrorist girlfriend. Uh, dude? More important stuff to focus on right now.

With each book, Sakey raised the dramatic stakes and upped the tension. He blew up the White House at the end of A Better World, for goodness’ sake! With that bold move, however, I think he hit the narrative ceiling. Maybe he peaked too early. Maybe my expectations were too high.

Sakey left the end of the book open to a possible sequel down the road, though he admits in the Acknowledgements that he may never come back to these characters. If he does, I may check it out, but I won’t have the same expectations that I did for this book.

Then there’s the issue of objectionable content. As I said previously, for the first two books, I’d give a movie rating of PG-13 for the series’ violence and sexual content, with a low-grade R for language. In Written in Fire, Sakey upped all three categories. His sexual references became more graphic, his language moved into the higher-“R” level, and his violence started to push Quentin-Tarentino levels of graphic description. It’s possible that this was purposeful to try to evoke the horror of the situation, but it just took me out of the moment. There’s horror, and then there’s too much. Sakey pushed too hard in all three content categories, this time around.

If it sounds like I’m wrestling with this review, it’s because I am. I truly enjoyed a good bit of this book, and I enjoyed the story of the series as a whole. But Written in Fire ultimately failed to meet a year and a half of expectations (fair or not), by delivering more of a by-the-numbers action finale with feints at deeper themes that just didn’t materialize.

Final Analysis: As much as I enjoyed the story of the series, I can’t in good conscience recommend Written in Fire to my readers. The plot is interesting, but these books don’t edify. Check out the work of authors like Mike Dellosso and Zachary Bartels if you’re looking for thrillers. They’re doing the seemingly-impossible by writing really good Christian fiction these days.
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Note: I was provided a complimentary electronic copy of the book by the publisher, in exchange for an unbiased review. The preceding thoughts are wholly my own.

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