I picked up Equations of Life, the first novel in Simon Morden’s Samuil Petrovitch series, after receiving a copy of his latest novel The Curve of the Earth for review. The new novel is the fourth one set in the series, but it came billed as a good point to get started if you missed the first three books, which form a trilogy of sorts. Still, being somewhat obsessive about these things, I decided to go back and read the first book rather than jump in at The Curve of the Earth.
Alas. After reading Equations of Life, I’m not sure if I’m interested in reading the rest. It’s not that this is a bad book per se. It’s just that it didn’t really offer me anything I haven’t seen elsewhere before.
The best part of Equations of Life is its main character Samuil Petrovitch, a young, brilliant Russian who fled the devastation in St. Petersburg and his old criminal life to become a scientist in the London Metrozone, one of the last bastions of modern civilization after an apocalyptic event you’ll learn more about as you read along. Petrovitch is young, he’s a genius, he’s a badass, and he has a heart condition, which in itself is a surprising twist for a protagonist in an action-packed novel like this one. We gradually learn more about his past as the main plot gets going. He’s simply an interesting character, and by himself he’s almost enough to make me consider reading the next book in the series.
As Equations of Life gets started, Petrovitch accidentally interrupts the kidnapping of a young woman. Having been involved in the kidnapping business himself in his old life, he decides to try and rescue her. Turns out she’s the daughter of what’s essentially the top boss of the London Yakuza. Petrovitch has inadvertently gotten himself involved in a power struggle between the Japanese and Russian factions of the organized crime world in London.
So. Petrovitch is interesting, and wanting to know more about him is really what kept me reading. Early on, he runs into Sister Madeleine, a battle-ready Catholic nun and another surprising character (although she felt a bit like combination of William Gibson’s Molly Millions and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Taura). And, well, that’s about it, unfortunately, in terms of the positives I can list here. Most of the other characters fall in the “bland” or “laughably stereotypical” categories. The various mobsters mostly are of the latter variety, and especially the mannerisms of the Japanese ones will make some readers cringe.
Another issue with the novel is Petrovitch’s constant barrage of Russian slang, mostly consisting of curses and invariably rendered in italics. There’s so much of this that it starts to get old after just a few chapters, and annoying after a few more. Don’t get me wrong: I vastly prefer real cursing in a language I don’t understand over fake, made-up neologisms (because frak, I’m so tired of that) but at some point, if you want me to enjoy your novel, I’m going to need either a translation or a significant reduction in the amount of italicized cursing.
The main problem with Equations of Life, however, is that it feels like a reheated mish-mash of ideas you’ve seen before. The near-future dystopian setting, the virtual reality worlds, the cyberpunk concepts (there’s something called the New Machine Jihad), the crime syndicates, the brilliant hacker who’s down on his luck but is going to code his way out of trouble… It all feels a pedestrian version of the novels William Gibson wrote a few decades ago.
And that’s really the main reason why I can’t recommend Equations of Life and why I’m not planning to read further into this series. If you want good cyberpunk with better writing (and no cringe-inducing lines like “I’m so far past last chances that last chance is nothing but a dot in the distance behind me.”), go back to the source and read Neuromancer. If you want a darker, more violent (and less mid-80’s) twist of those ideas, pick up Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels (start with Altered Carbon). I just can’t think of a single reason why I’d recommend Equations of Life over those novels, unless you’ve read them all already and you’re really desperate for another dystopian cyberpunk anti-hero story and.
One more note: the covers of the US paperback editions of these novels are extraordinary. I started out hating them (and my five year old son at one point said “Daddy, the book you’re reading is making me dizzy.”), but I ended up realizing they’re brilliant. Your eyes can’t help but be drawn to them. You may need some Dramamine after looking at these covers for too long, but they’re an effective, memorable, and instantly recognizable set of art. Kudos to Orbit and especially cover designer Lauren Panepinto.