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by Ty Drago

(Tor, $25.95, 431pages, hardcover; November 2003.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

Before I dive into this one, I thought I'd just save you cover scanthe trouble of reading the whole review. Go buy this book. It's a great read, a lot of fun, and worth the hardcover price.

Need more convincing? OK, then go ahead and read the review.

First off, the lowdown: Something is killing people at a research station on Phobos, Mars's smallest moon. A military team is sent in, but several key members fall victim to the Phobos Beast. Enter Lieutenant Mike Brogue -- the only native Martian to become a commissioned officer for the Terran Peacekeepers. Brogue's investigation will unravel a complex plot that involves deception, murder, and attempted genocide -- all this and he has to deal with bigotry, too! Will Brogue crack the case before he becomes the Phobos Beast's next entrée?

That's the gist of this exciting book. Need more? OK, fine. Here's why this is such a great story.

It works.

That's not an easy statement to make about most books these days (perhaps that was true in those days as well, but I'm only privy to these ones). When it comes to science fiction/mystery stories, it's near impossible.

Asimov managed to write some entertaining SF/mysteries, but they suffered from the same flaws as many Asimov novels. Now, I loved reading Asimov when I did, but the man had his shortcomings, and they are all too prevalent in The Caves of Steel and his other mysteries. The flaw I refer to is superficiality. These novels have great sf ideas and a decent mystery, but they never rise beyond the basics of those genres. They never delve deeply into the characters.

David Brin's Kiln People also proved to be entertaining and thought-provoking; however, as far as mysteries go, this detective story fell apart in the end with a cliché villain. There are other examples as well, but you get the idea. The problem is this: the conventions of these two genres, science fiction and mystery, tend to be opposed to each other.

For example, in science fiction, we generally look down upon clumps of exposition or obvious exposition placed into a conversation. ("As you already know, Bob, the Xoran initiative changed the way we think about wormholes. But let me explain it to you anyway...") In mysteries, this technique (most notably obvious in the numerous Q & A sessions a detective encounters) can comprise a bulk of the story. It's expected, accepted, and crucial. Melding the two genres thus poses serious conflicts that, if not resolved, ruin the experience for lovers of either genre.

Along comes Ty Drago. He makes it work. In fact, I suspect mystery lovers would take to Phobos as much as science fiction fans. Drago has managed to utilize the best of both genres and discard the rest, while deftly manoeuvring through the problematic differences. The mystery is compelling and its solution satisfying. The science is integral to the story and integral to the mystery; this latter point represents another failing in many sf mysteries. Also, the storytelling actually matches all those catch-phrases you expect to see on mystery thrillers ("pulse-pounding", "rollercoaster ride", "thrilling and suspenseful", "edge of your seat" ...) -- only this time, for once, the book delivers.

That's not to say that Drago's book is flawless. The opening is exciting but then grinds down into too much character setup. While important, this information could have been doled out in smaller bits. Also, in an effort to be crystal-clear about the technologies the author has fabricated, he sometimes over-explains things. We readers can infer quite a bit, if given the chance.

Still, when this book gets cooking (and that happens the second Brogue lands on Phobos), it never lets up. I found myself, literally, staying up late just to read a little bit further.

But wait! There's more! Drago also creates a fantastic main character -- Mike Brogue. The personal dilemmas this man endures, both physical and emotional, drive him to extreme lengths yet ground him into believable actions. In other words, the guy is a fully drawn, fully realized character. What's more, unlike many detectives before him, you can credit that he's got the brains and the gut instinct for the job. Even as events become more and more muddled, you believe that soon Brogue will shine a light on it all, as he does.

The supporting characters are all well conceived, too, and Brogue's sidekick, Sergeant "Stone" Choi, makes the perfect Watson to Brogue's Sherlock Holmes.

Most importantly, when you finish reading Phobos, you'll want to read another Mike Brogue mystery. This could (if Drago and Tor wish to do it) be the beginning of a successful, long-running sf mystery series.

If it sounds like I'm over-praising this novel, well, tough. I found myself continually being impressed with the story. Don't get the wrong idea, though. This is not ground-breaking material. This is not China Miéville or William Gibson. It's just solid writing. If anything, Ty Drago has produced a classic Golden Age science fiction tale that gave me the thrill I once got when discovering Heinlein and Asimov. This is the kind of book that will attract new readers to the genre and should garner many awards. I highly recommend it.


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