Unparalleled by D.S. Smith. My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
“He remembered falling. Falling forward into darkness, spinning and tumbling as he fell. No sound, no light, just falling. And the sickness, he remembered the sickness in his stomach. He felt it now. He leaned over and retched but nothing came out. With some effort he pushed himself up onto his knees and onto his feet. His head throbbed and he felt dizzy but he managed to stay standing. He heard another car pass by in the distance. Where the hell am I, he thought?”
Wow! It feels good to be doing this again. After months of inactivity concerning my book reviews, I am finally back in action! Let’s get into it. As usual, I’ll give a little summary before I dive into my thoughts on this.
The book opens with a man named Stuart Milton waking up in unfamiliar surroundings. After meeting up with his brother David, Stuart discovers that the life he thought he had is not true. After breaking into what he thought was his home, Stuart is sent to a psychiatrist who tries to get him to accept the current reality, although he feels that he can’t. Meanwhile, a group of scientists at a university become interested in Stuart after being made aware of a man who experienced delusions strikingly similar to his. At the same time, a secret criminal organization looks to steal the technology the university is hoping to develop by helping Stuart get home and send out an agent who will stop at nothing to destroy their work. Can Stuart make it home before it is too late?
It really feels amazing to be back to reviewing again, and God, what a great book to start back up with! Before I talk about some of the characters, though, it’s probably a good idea to tackle the structure first with this particular story, because it will help with discussing the characters later on.
The book starts out with Stuart struggling to forget his old life while dealing with this new, foreign situation he’s been thrust into. The first half deals with Stuart claiming things about the life he thought he had, while the exact opposite is revealed to be true, making him look delusional. This sets up what happens later with the university scientists, but in the moment, it is hard to tell where the story is going. Much like Stuart, I was very confused, and it made the section a little slow-going. However, I think that was intentional in helping to build the main character arc Stuart experiences throughout the plot – should he go home to his old dimension, where his wife probably thinks he is deceased and his brother David isn’t really in his life – or should he stay in the dimension he ended up in, where he and his brother are close and where he’s made some new friends?
While Stuart’s eventual decision is understandable and easy to get behind in a story-driven sense, it also opens up questions as to whether he deserves to live a life that is not his in the first place. This leads to a wonderfully subtle commentary on doing not only what is best in terms of family, but also what is best in terms of personal morality. I love that Smith is using this scenario to comment on the dangers of living a life that forces you to lie to yourself. Stuart understands that, as much as he grows to like Dr. Catherine Carson and David in this dimension, he cannot continue to live a life that is not rightfully his and has a duty as a father-to-be to get back home.
The way Smith sets up the plot of the story mainly works to establish a sense of foreboding and leave the reader wanting to know more about what’s happening. One great way this is done is when we see a father and son playing together, and a portal opens up right before the son’s eyes and whisks his father away. This, at first, seems like an evil force that the main characters would have to fight or work against, but what I like about it is that Smith completely subverts that idea of said force being bad by having it instead be helpful to Stuart and the scientists.
Speaking of the scientists, I should talk a bit about the Harmoniser they work on in the story. I will admit that, when Stuart first met this team, I did not fully trust them or the machine and a lot of the scientific jargon they were using flew right over my head. However, Smith is able to make it clear that these scientists actually want to help Stuart by establishing a rival team in Beijing that wants the Harmoniser for themselves.
See, the effects of using the Harmoniser can actually cure diseases and allow the person who enters into and uses it to never age, and the head of the rival team in Beijing needs it to cure his son’s terminal illness. When he fails to build his own Harmoniser, he sends out Lin Lee to destroy the one that is supposed to take Stuart home in an act of revenge. This provides the ticking time bomb that makes the second half of the story so gripping. The technology they are working on is incredible, and I found myself praying that they would succeed in developing it and sending Stuart home.
“Catherine Carson had not known what to expect when she entered the lab, but she had expected more than this. Other than the presence of a large bank of computers and some kind of booth that looked like an airport body scanner, they could have been in any laboratory in any scientific establishment. As incredible as it all seems she now accepted that there had to be substance to the professor’s claims. But her senses still betrayed her. Why did everything look so ordinary? They were privy to the most significant discovery in the history of the human race, yet it felt like the induction at the start of a night school class. If they had entered the room to find something akin to the Large Hadron Collider it would have felt more appropriate, but this! She noticed Stuart once staring at the booth; the professor had noticed this also.”
What I like most about the structure of the story is that it alternates between Stuart’s point of view and those of the characters that are most prevalent. In the beginning half this is done with the university scientists, which helps to set up Stuart’s eventual involvement with them nicely. I admit, the chapter with the father and son in this section seemed to come out of nowhere but, given the unpredictable nature of the wormholes the scientists are looking at in the first half, it is understandable that it would feel like that. And I do like how that scenario is eventually explained to the reader, showing its prevalence to the plot, so it really only requires the reader to be patient as the plot unfolds.
In the second half of the story, Stuart’s point of view mainly alternates with those of Lin Lee, David, and Catherine. I found that I liked these points of view a bit more than the ones in the first half because the way Smith sets them up shows the reader that the story is getting more intense, the bad guys are getting closer to Stuart and his friends, and it makes the latter half of the book gripping! I found it much easier to get behind these characters’ sections because, by that point, we know more about them and the stakes are so much clearer. As a result, the tension is beautifully set up and it makes the book very hard to put down at that point.
“Lin Lee decided the best solution to her dilemma was the one that had always served her best in the past. Deceit! Anything but positive news at this stage would be unacceptable to the Director and the consequences would be grave. So, when the Director’s phone eventually rang he was delighted to hear the test had been successful and they were ready to transfer a human through their Harmoniser.”
The likable characters in this story are part of what makes it so enjoyable. Stuart is a devoted husband to his wife and will stop at nothing to get back to her, even if it means giving up a life he has grown to enjoy in the alternate dimension. I love the relationship between him and David particularly because it’s obvious that, though Stuart may not be the Stuart Dave knows, they grow to care for each other as if he had lived in that dimension his entire life. I particularly enjoyed their conversation about what is different about the alternate universe Stuart comes from. It allowed them to bond while giving the reader some information about each dimension.
“While his brother was off on the quest for alcohol Dave turned on the TV to watch the news. There was no mention of the incident at the hotel. He flicked through a few more channels but then Stuart arrived back sporting two bottles of red wine and two glasses. ‘Courtesy of Terry!’ he exclaimed, holding the bottles up in the air. ‘He did say to tell you to be careful how much you drink after all you’ve been through.’
‘Ah, I’ll be fine.’ Dave said dismissing Terry’s concerns.
Stuart put the glasses down on a table, unscrewed one of the bottles and poured two generous measures of wine. Handing one to his brother he raised his glass for a toast. ‘To strength in the face of adversity.’
‘I’ll drink to that,’ Dave said, raising his glass in unison with Stuart’s.”
Catherine is another very likable character. I think what I enjoyed most about her was that she was a fantastic friend to Stuart and, while there was a small hint of romance between them, I appreciated that Smith didn’t develop it any further and instead allowed them to remain as good friends throughout the story. It worked in showing Stuart’s resolve to get home to Lauren without breaking any hearts, allowing the story to progress without pointless romantic drama. And I just have to say that Catherine is an awesome person. I love that her end goal is to do what’s right and that she is dedicated to helping Stuart get home, without even thinking about how doing so may be hard for her because she’s good friends with him. I particularly enjoyed her role in the story’s climax, because it showed just how much she cared about helping him reach his goal to get back.
“Catherine had planned to try to help Stuart come to an informed decision about his destiny. He was no longer her patient and was making it clear that he would never be her lover. She had nothing further to offer him other than friendship.”
Now, it’s not just the protagonists that work to make a story enjoyable, because the antagonists can be just as, if not sometimes more, fun to read about. Smith creates the main antagonist in the agent Lin Lee, and she is easily the biggest obstacle to Stuart in his quest to get home. Smith writes her as this hardened criminal who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and the sections with her point of view work wonders to create tension. This is because, not only is the plot propelled forward, but we see just how crazy she is in trying to achieve her goals. If she were the main focus of the story rather than Stuart, it would be closer to A Clockwork Orange than anything else. Every time we saw her in the story, I felt something clench in my chest, and if an author can make the reader feel that way while reading their story, they earn my respect.
“First, [Lin Lee] had to escape from her current captors. The two police officers who escorted her from the cool vessel now sat either side of her in the van into which she had been ushered. There were no windows in the back of the van so she had no idea where they were or where they were heading. Judging by the speed they were traveling and the smoothness of the ride they were probably on the highway. She assessed her situation and formulated her plan of escape. A set of cuffs secured her hands behind her back but the chain between the two cuffs was long enough to allow her to manoeuvre. The police officer to her right was sleeping with his chin resting on his chest. The officer to her left was thumbing the keys of a cell phone. They did not seem threatened by her presence so when the attack came their reactions would be slow.
Now, despite all of the positives this story has, there were one or two things that bothered me about it. One of these things is that a scientist at the university asked Stuart to pass on the Harmoniser technology once he got home, but we never even see a hint of this at the end, not even in the form of an epilogue. It just seems like the idea is set up and then forgotten about later on, and that was kind of annoying. If you’re going to emphasize something like that (the news is set up to seem extremely important) you need to at least give the reader the hint that that is going to happen, even if they won’t see it in full. There is no hint that Stuart is going to pass on the technology once he is home, and it just really bugged me after that huge speech the scientist gave Stuart.
“‘This is possibly the biggest event in human history, Stuart, and I cannot emphasise enough how important you are to its success.’
Stuart sensed he was being prepared for something more than he had already learned. He sat and listened to the motivational speech the professor was delivering, waiting for the point to be revealed. When it was, the gravity of what he was hearing bore down on him like a physical entity pressing him to his seat.”
All in all, I really enjoyed this enthralling tale. Smith has woven together a story that is intriguing, fascinating, and very satisfying. The characters are easy to root for and it is awesome to see what they go through here. This is definitely a story that I would recommend to anyone looking for a good sci-fi adventure. It is a journey that pulls you in and refuses to let you go until the very last page. I highly recommend it for any science fiction fan!