Fiction Review: “A Better World” by Marcus Sakey

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ABetterWorldAfter all the time Marcus Sakey spent creating a stratified, believable world of gifted and normal races, all he intended to do was knock the blocks over. Pour the bucket of water on the sand castle.

Let’s back up. Last summer Sakey released the thriller “Brilliance,” where about one-percent of the population had strange talents, like the ability to anticipate body motion, count large numbers in seconds, or see computer code. “Brilliance” was a marvel of total immersion. The world felt fully explained and realized partly because almost every character the protagonist Nick Cooper (at the time a “gifted” government agent) encountered was dimensional. Every place fully drawn and realized.

“A Better World,” the sequel to “Brilliance” carries none of that over. For one thing, it likely wouldn’t stand alone if encountered first on a bookshelf. Compared to how thoroughly “Brilliance” delineated the systems we all encounter, “A Better World” just requires a lot of swallowing and accepting. Characters so pivotal and fascinating in “Brilliance,” like a financier gifted with supreme probability analysis, barely seem familiar here. The main characters—Cooper, his love interest Shannon, his ex-wife Natalie—don’t reveal any more of themselves. New characters, such as a geneticist researching the cause of the “gifts,” are just really milquetoasty in a novel full of insane action and devious motivation. Let’s not even get started on the action. In contrast to “Brilliance”’s lovingly painted portrayals of Chicago neighborhoods, Cleveland in “A Better World” seems to mostly exist to be turned into a Third World city. While “Brilliance” did have moments where the line of action jerked jarringly upward and the reader questioned why the New York Stock Exchange had to explode, “A Better World” has all the action finales of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay and “Die Hard,” plus electric cars and crystallized ketchup… honestly, it’s obnoxious to have this all happen in a book, even a thriller.

Two things keep “A Better World” going. Events, no matter how outsize and grandiose, move at a nice clip, and the central conflict is still an intriguing one. The world has still not figured out how to deal with people who differ. One bright spot is Sakey’s dabbling in epigenetics as he postulates how “brilliants” might have come about—an origin story would be a welcome addition. Perhaps “A Better World” is so disheartening because while “Brilliance” offered glimpses of the choice to be made, here the choice is clear: difference is a threat. (Liz Baudler)

“A Better World”
By Marcus Sakey
Thomas & Mercer Publishing, 421 pages, $14.95

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