I really don’t like writing negative reviews. I very seldom do it. For one thing, I generally don’t finish things that I think deserve negative reviews, and I don’t review things that I don’t finish. Also, I am not a good reviewer–that takes a particular skill set that I don’t have. When I review I do it as a fan, because I love something and I want to share it.
I am going to write about Chris Ward’s The Tube Riders and I am going to say some negative things about it. I started out loving this book, which I listened to as an audiobook narrated by Mark Capell. The author’s voice meshed very well with the narrator’s delivery–which can be a very tough thing to achieve.
He opened very strong, introducing the main characters and the world in a fast moving scene. There’s a group of kids who have made a sport out of jumping onto the sides of moving subway trains and riding them. It’s a crazy thing to do, but it’s a crazy world. They live in late 21st Century London, and the city is under the control of a totalitarian government. These kids have no hope for anything more than a life of grinding poverty and an early death. Risking their lives riding the trains makes them feel alive.
It’s a powerful, poignant opening. Ward’s prose is powerful, sometimes lyrical, other times startlingly blunt. And while the majority of the main characters are in their late teens to early twenties, I wouldn’t consider this a YA book. There are some very, very rough scenes in this book, and a great deal of disturbing imagery.
After the opening scene the riders go their separate ways and Ward follows them, giving each her or his own chapter, and we see more of how “Mega-Briton” got into its current state, as well as insights into each of the characters.
So far, so good. In fact, at this point I was really impressed and excited about getting the rest of the series.
So what happened?
The worst case of Ultimater Weapon Disease that I have ever seen.
What on Earth is “Ultimater Weapon Disease”? Galloping power escalation. The characters start out outnumbered and outgunned–which is good. There is a mood of desperation. The government has everything locked down. There are walls around the cities to keep the citizens in. Private weapons and personal electronics are banned. The government agents have numbers, weapons, advanced technology, and no effective limits on their actions.
Unfortunately, instead of staying with that, Ward starts raising the stakes. He introduces the Huntsmen, who are cyborgs designed to track and kill enemies of the state. So far, so good. They are frightening and dangerous and fit the post-apocalyptic cyberpunk feel of the world.
But then the leader of a rival gang is revealed to be a Huntsman who didn’t know that she was a Huntsman. After she is forced into service I got the feeling that the author was starting to lose control of his narrative. The odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against the protagonists that he starts using some very far-fetched coincidences to save them at the last minute.
People keep showing up at just the right time–without having any way to contact each other and work out a plan in advance. The bad guys make a number of randomly stupid decisions. Suddenly one character just happens to find his uncle in a strange city and his uncle just happens to be the leader of well armed underground resistance movement. The characters get separated and randomly run into each other. The meet someone who just happens to own a barge and just happens to know a secret way to where they are going and just happens to want to risk everything he has to help a group of strangers. One of the bad guys suddenly turns out to be the long-lost brother of one of the good guys.
Meanwhile, the bad guys keep getting more powerful. The rival gang leader goes from near death to upgraded with more powerful weapons overnight. The Governor is now a mutant with mental powers.
After a while it starts feeling like two kids playing make-believe in a backyard fort.
“My guy has the ultimate weapon!”
“Oh, yeah? My guy has an ultimater weapon!”
“Well, now my guy has the ultimatest weapon!”
The cliffhanger at the end of each chapter was bigger, faster, stronger–more ultimater–than the one before.
And I lost all willing suspension of disbelief.
I’ve seen this before. In my opinion the Harry Potter series suffers from UWD, with each book introducing a new and more ultimater magical spell or item. A lot of comic book superheroes get UWD so badly that the series needs to be either canceled or rebooted at a lower power level. UWD tends to creep into movie franchises–in the last film the bad guy had a bomb that would destroy a city, so in this movie we have to make the bad guy have a bomb that will destroy a continent!
Both Charles Stross’ Laundry Files and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series struggle against UWD–in my opinion those authors are aware of the problem and taking aggressive countermeasures.
It’s rare, though, to see the power levels escalate so quickly as in The Tube Riders. And it’s a shame, because the book started out so well, and I really enjoyed Chris Ward’s prose style–enough that I finished the book even after I stopped believing in the characters’ struggles.
I do intend to check out more of his work. I won’t be reading the next two in The Tube Riders series, though.