|The futuristic 2176 series shifts to the wilds of Australia in Liz Maverick’s entry The Shadow Runners. While the book’s premise is intriguing, the hero and heroine’s shared background is too sketchy to have the necessary impact, and some of the hero’s dubious decisions cast a shadow of doubt on the couple’s ability to have a happily-ever-after together.
Maverick’s futuristic Australia is a throwback to the 18th century colonial days, the island continent once again serving as a dumping ground for prisoners and social undesirables. The country’s power lies in the hands of Parliament, a group of opiate-addicted dandies who model themselves on Regency society. Heroine Jenny Red escaped from Australia’s Newgate City after killing a Parliament member, and now ekes out a living in the slums of nearby Macao. Then she’s given an offer she can’t refuse. D’ekkar Han Valoren, bastard son of the Asian emperor, wants Jenny to help him get back into Newgate. After being thrown in prison by his half-brother Kyber, Deck joined the revolutionary Shadow Runners that advocate freedom for the world’s oppressed people. Deck desperately needs to get into Newgate to help the Shadow Runners, and Jenny is the only one who can help him navigate through its dangers.
Even though Deck did nothing to prevent Jenny’s banishment to Newgate years ago when her father was accused of plotting to kill the Emperor, and even though she’s still wanted for murder, Jenny agrees to be Deck’s guide, in return for the promise of enough money to escape her lifelong poverty.
But Jenny and Deck haven’t planned on Parliament taking an ominous interest in the former prince and insisting on their own escort for Deck’s trip. And they couldn’t have predicted that the chemistry between them, barely acknowledged when they knew each other at the Emperor’s palace, would be much harder to ignore now. Still, Jenny doesn’t kid herself. She’s a cog in Deck’s wheel, a tool for his revolution. If necessary, he’d sacrifice her life for his ideals. But for once, wouldn’t it be nice if someone actually cared about what happened to her?
The Shadow Runners is the bleakest book yet in the 2176 series, with a Mad Max-type nihilism that is countered by uplifting revolutionary ideals only late in the book. Jenny is a tough but strong heroine whose hardscrabble life has no room for Deck’s idealistic talk of democracy and freedom. But gradually she learns the joy of being part of a movement that can make a difference, and her lifelong practical self-centeredness makes room for other people. Unfortunately, the reader only gets vague details about Jenny’s past – her amoral father, her time spent in the Asian capital palace, her incarceration in Newgate – so while it’s easy to understand intellectually that she’s had a hard life, it’s difficult to empathize emotionally with her.
Details are similarly lacking in the early relationship between Jenny and Deck, which weakens the chemistry the reader experiences between them. It doesn’t help that for much of the book Deck soothes his conscience about his role in Jenny’s adversity with Machiavellian adages about the end justifying the means. Although he has given up the royal trappings following his own imprisonment, he has a hard time treating other people as equals, and it’s not until the very end of the story that he makes a redemptive heroic gesture. It’s hard to believe that Deck and Jenny have much of a future together, they still seem much too far apart in temperament and philosophy, even if, naturally, they have great sex.
The novel features some interesting secondary characters, including Deck’s former bodyguard Raidon who still insists on protecting his former charge, and the dissipated Parliament member Quinn who accompanies the group on their trip, his motives suspicious but unclear. Maverick paints a vivid picture of 22nd century Australian society but isn’t quite as successful filling in the natural and technological landscape.
If you aren’t familiar with the 2176 series, I wouldn’t recommend starting with The Shadow Runners, but if you have read the first two installments you probably won’t want to miss this one. Maverick sets up the possibility of a reunion between Deck and Asian Emperor Kyber, last seen in The Legend of Banzai Maguire. If so, it will be interesting to see how Susan Grant depicts these characters in the final series book, The Scarlet Empress, due out in December. Meanwhile, the next 2176 book, Patti O’Shea’s The Power of Two, will be released in September. I won’t bemoan the end of summer too much if I know there are two promising books awaiting me in the fall.