Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Review - Second Skin, Too by Peter Darrach

Short review: A cartoon-like villain foments war between Earth and Mars. Meanwhile, Elaine gains Max's super-powers, which should surprise no one given the title of the book

Earth wants minerals
Mars wants to keep everything
Max visits T'chell

Disclosure: I received this book as a Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Second Skin, Too is the sequel to Second Skin and the second book in the trilogy of the same name. Taking place shortly after the events of the first volume, the book follows Max Cody, recently enhanced with super powers, as he attempts to prevent an interplanetary conflict between Earth and Mars. Shorn of its need to provide quite as much explanatory exposition as the first book, this installment picks up the pace a bit, and that proves to be both good and bad. It is good in the sense that there is more plot and character development, but it is bad in the sense that when one sits back to think about these elements, they frequently don't make a whole lot of sense. The end result is a book that is moderately interesting, but ultimately isn't much more than a diverting way to spend a couple hours.

As with Second Skin, Second Skin, Too starts with an action sequence in which the reader follows an intruder as he infiltrates what is supposed to be a secure area. The main difference between Suicide Sam's assault on a Martian military vessel and Nigel Deftly's infiltration into a Martian prison to free Gilberto Mendoso and Artemesia Glittereski, imprisoned at the end of Second Skin, is the the level of lethal violence employed. Whereas Sam casually slaughtered the crew of the doomed navy cruiser, Nigel manages to accomplish his mission without killing anyone. This reluctance to kill seems unique to Nigel, as everyone else in the book seems to consider randomly beating and killing people on the way to one's objectives to be more of less par for the course. And it is this level of random violence that makes the book both so action-packed and monotonous.

The overarching plot of the book relates to the increasing political tension between Earth and the newly independent Mars. In a fit of grandiosity, the freshly minted Martian government laid claim to the entire solar system from the orbit of Mars outwards, an assertion of authority that Earth is understandably less than pleased about. On the other hand, Earth has no facility like MOSA or MOSA II that could process the bounty provided by the asteroid belt, and shows no interest in building one, which makes their assertion of competing authority seem somewhat hollow and meaningless. Even if Earth had a practical means of reaping the benefits of the asteroid belt, it is glaringly obvious that Mars could not possibly maintain any kind of control over the vast area of the asteroid belt - Mars doesn't actually occupy its entire orbit, and even if Mars and Earth were aligned, Mars would be further away than the Earth from the portion of the asteroid belt on the opposite side of the Sun, meaning that Earth would have an advantage in trying to get there at those times. Consequently, the entire idea of Mars "claiming" the asteroid belt, let alone the entirety of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, all of their moons, as well as the Kuiper Belt, is almost ludicrous on its face.

Nonetheless, in Second Skin, Too tensions over asteroid belt mining rights have brought both worlds to the brink of war, and to try to avert it, Mars decides to send a delegation to attempt a negotiated settlement. Because he is the hero of the book, Max Cody joins the expedition for more or less contrived reasons, as does his fiance Elaine. So everyone heads for Earth as part of the ambassadorial entourage, armed with the knowledge that someone from Earth had liberated Gilberto and Artemesia, and that the same unknown individual probably also kidnapped Denis Dermott, a scientist working on the top secret Martian teleportation based p-drive. After a brief trip, they arrive and are sent to Mauritius, a rather obscure island in the Indian Ocean, which seems like an odd choice for a diplomatic summit.

But before too long we learn why Mauritius was chosen: it is conveniently near a corporate installation owned by the industrialist and arms merchant Xanthus Rex, who serves as the not-so-subtle villain of the story. This lack of subtlety is somewhat disappointing, as Xanthus is such a scenery chewing over-the-top villain who is so boorishly clumsy that one has to wonder how he came to wield the influence that he displays in the book. Xanthus is presented and treated like a clever schemer, but he is more of a bull in a china shop than a sleek barracuda. He is desperate to instigate a war between Earth and Mars so as to get his hands on Martian resources, and to get the advanced Martian technology represented by the p-drive. But to get his way he engages in the most ham-fisted array of techniques one could imagine. At one point he decides that he has to figure out the secret of Max's unusual abilities, but rather than try to bribe Max, or do anything more sneaky first, he sends a band of thugs to try to beat Max up. When that doesn't work, he tries to kill Max by throwing him off a boat into shark-infested water. And when that doesn't work he kidnaps Elaine and shoots her, threatening to let her die unless Max divulges his secrets.

And that's the way Xanthus handles pretty much every situation. When trying to steal the secrets of the Martian p-drive, Xanthus doesn't try to bribe someone, or hack into the project's computers and steal the data, or any other sensible method. Instead, he kidnaps one of the scientists on the project and gives him hallucinogenic drugs to try to manipulate him into working for Xanthus. Xanthus kills the scientists working for him in an almost offhand manner, for no real apparent reason, and pointlessly alienates many of his underlings. Not only that, several of his gambits seem to be almost entirely pointless as well - had he managed to kill Max by tossing him into shark-infested waters, how would that have helped him to unravel the secret of whatever gave Max his powers? Leaving aside the fact that the "secret" is bonded to Max, a fact that Xanthus has no way of knowing, killing Max by casting his body into the ocean would mean that his body would be lost, and likely the technology he was using would have been as well. Like so many of Xanthus' other plots, this seems short-sighted and poorly thought out.

This sort of blunt force method of persuasion leaks out to the other characters in the book as well. Xu, a genetically modified space pilot who starts the book in the employ of Xanthus, is sent with Gilberto to try to make contact with Suicide Sam's gang, with the stated objective of inducing them to foment discord on MOSA. Xu's method of persuading Sam to support Xanthus' ambitions is to show up uninvited in his hideout and start a fight with his men, killing half of them before blasting her way out. Supposedly, this works, but Sam's men seem to have almost no impact on the impending hostilities. This sort of negotiation style is endemic throughout the book: when Martian Navy Lieutenant Sandra James goes undercover to work on the MOSA docks to look for trouble, she secures her job by punching the shift supervisor in the mouth when she meets him. Maybe I've just led a sheltered life, but in my experience socking your potential supervisor in the jaw is generally the way to screw up a job interview, not a way to get yourself hired.

Amidst all the punching people in the head to get them to join sides, tensions between Earth and Mars ratchet up, with the Earth holding a substantial edge in military equipment despite being starved for raw materials. Gilberto's net contribution to the effort to undermine Mars seems to be lying about as an invalid after a particularly difficult space flight back from Earth (having been kidnapped and taken there at Xanthus' behalf, only to be almost immediately drugged and returned to Mars, also at Xanthus' behest). Artemesia helps put together a fake propaganda video, an endeavor she has second-thoughts about, but that video is almost immediately shown to be a fraud, and the Earth government, which had thrown its support behind an invasion of Mars, immediately reverses course. Suicide Sam makes a couple of desultory appearances in the book, having almost no impact on the plot at all before he is summarily dispatched by Max. All in all, almost no plot elements from the first book other than Max's newly developed superpowers have any real effect on the plot of this book.

Max more or less accidentally bestows his superhuman powers upon Elaine while trying to save her life, and she becomes the "too" in the title. Max and Elaine discover a new collection of super powers, and both wind up in the "Tavern at the Edge of Time" and meet with its seemingly immortal proprietor T'chell. This element, foreshadowed since the beginning of the first book, is something of a disappointment as it turns out that Max's encounter with the alien was purely accidental, and the source of Max's powers was an almost trivial fix-up. Given that the first two books have been about human politics, introducing mysterious and inscrutable aliens into the mix seems like something of a left turn for the series, but then again most of the elements from the first book didn't have much impact on the second book, so one would probably expect the same to hold true for the transition from the second to the third.

In the end, Xanthus goes into full-on comic book villain mode, commandeering the Earth invasion fleet by impersonating its commanding admiral. Following a lifetime of abuse, Xu decides to switch sides and joins up with Mars for the climatic showdown. Nigel attempts to steal the p-drive technology amidst the fighting, but is foiled by a debilitated scientist wearing magic pants, and Max and Elaine use their super powers to save the day.

Overall, while Second Skin, Too manages to avoid many of the pitfalls that ensnared Second Skin, it has its own set of problems. The plot of this book is poorly connected to the plot of the first book, and many of the plot threads in this volume simply peter out. The plot points that do ripen to fruition are presented at an almost frenzied pace, and instead of the intrigue and skullduggery the book aspires to describe, the reader is given a collection of loosely connected lethal brawls. Many of the troubles in the book are directly traceable to the unbelievability of Xanthus as the villainous mastermind - his machinations are simply too clumsy to make him a credible criminal kingpin. And without a viable villain, the rest of the book more or less just falls apart, and is made almost surreal by the introduction of the T'chell. Second Skin, Too is a book that is perhaps too ambitious, and tries to incorporate too many elements, and as a result is too unfocused with too many moving parts to hold together.

Previous book in the series: Second Skin
Subsequent book in the series: Tavern on the Edge of Time
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  1. I find the title somewhat interesting and redundant. But I suspect the author meant to do that?

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: I think that the redundancy is intentional. The upcoming third book in the series has a very different title.