Fires of Man by Dan Levinson
Supposedly, the war between Calchis and Orion ended decades ago. But upon reporting to an isolated Orion army base for basic training, Private Stockton Finn learns the war still rages, only the weapons have changed–most disturbingly of all, Finn has been selected to become one of those weapons.
Across the border, young Calchan farm boy Aaron Waverly learns all too well just how determined his country is to win the war when he is abducted from his family’s property by a sinister government operative known only as Agent. Finding himself trapped in dreary new surroundings, learning deadly skills he’s never before imagined, Aaron struggles to reconcile his ephemeral faith with his harsh new reality.
As the two nations hurtle toward a resurgence of open hostilities, Finn and Aaron, along with their new friends and mentors, must rush to prepare themselves for the inevitable clash. All the while, a new archaeological find in the frozen tundra far to the north hints that the brewing conflict may only be the first of their worries…
I liked the premise in Dan Levinson’s debut from the get-go. The idea that hostility exists between two huge countries based on super-human mental abilities really appeals. The thought that a cold war/arms race has grown up around gaining access to the previously untapped resources of the human mind is a great kicking off point for a science fiction novel.
There is quite a large cast of characters in Fires of Man. Initially, things focus on two psionics who have just come into their powers. Stockon Finn and Aaron Waverly act as our guides into the countries of Orion and Calchis respectively. Through them both Levinson has ample opportunity to explore their differing ways of life. As the narrative expands, chapters begin to include other people involved in the ongoing struggle.
In particular, I’d imagine the character of Agent is going to get a good response from many readers. Part of the Calchis intelligence community he is a psionic with what I suppose could best be described as sociopathic tendencies. Using the public persona of defence contractor “John Black”, Agent moves freely throughout the world using his business as a cover to complete the tasks set by his masters. Agent will do anything to get the job done, and I mean anything. He is the perfect weapon – driven, tenacious, critically minded and totally without any moral qualms when it comes to violence or killing to achieve a goal.
One of the most interesting things that struck me about Fires of Man is that there doesn’t really appear to be any proper villains (even Agent can be forgiven for being merely a product of never-ending conditioning and training). It feels like the author has left things morally ambiguous on purpose. In this war there is no such thing as black and white, only differing shades of grey. I liked that I could see good and bad on both sides of the conflict. It made things feel far more realistic.
Levinson has a writing style that is very easy to get caught up in. The shifts between the main characters keep the pace from flagging and also allows the author to explore every aspect of all the different cultures he has created. The attention to all the little details in the world-building are fun, everything from names of favourite beers to classical music get a mention.
This alternate version of Earth is in some ways very much like our own but in others it is entirely different. Though the two international superpowers of Calchis and Orion are the two most prominently featured societies my personal preference was for the chapters set in the land of Kaito. There is an Oriental flavour to their culture and their interpretation of psionic powers is far more inner-focused and spiritual than elsewhere. I’m a big fan of everything from the Far East so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this aspect of the plot that I enjoyed most.
All the different races and countries featured have their own flaws and failings as well as strengths. This allows Levinson to touch upon many social issues and injustices that we’re all familiar with and draw them into the narrative. Religious intolerance, racism and class boundaries are all explored. The good news however is that these comments are presented in such a way that it gives the reader the opportunity to form their own opinion.
Overall, I enjoyed Fires of Man. There is plenty going on in the plot, loads of action and some nice unexpectedly thoughtful moments to round things off. I got the distinct impression however that there is a still a much bigger story waiting to be revealed. You’re left in little doubt that this is most definitely the first part of a larger series by the time you get to the final page. There is a narrative strand following a character called Faith and when her story ends in this book, things are still far from over. Don’t get me wrong though, I think the Psionic Earth series is off to a great start, I’m looking forward to the next book already. Now that the first skirmish is over, I can’t wait for the war to properly begin.
Fires of Man is published by Jolly Fish Press and is available now.