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The Electric Church by Jeff Somers
Review by John Berlyne
Orbit Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781841496160
Date: 03 April 2008 List Price £6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

The mass market edition of Jeff Somers' debut novel The Electric Church is released by Orbit. It ain't deep or profound in any way whatsoever, and this was precisely why I rather enjoyed this book when I first read it last September. We're re-running my review in this issue. Look for the details on the sequel, The Digital Plague, elsewhere in the UK Books column.

I like novels that get straight to point and The Electric Church, a début novel from American writer Jeff Somers doesn't mess about. Immediately we are launched into what amounts to a "caper" story, complete with a square-jawed, gun-toting, slightly anarchic protagonist who must lure his gang of wayward and eccentric criminal specialists towards an impossible goal with the promise of obscene riches. This template is as old as the hills, but Somers places his characters in a near future setting where the world social order seems to have collapsed and it is a transposition that creates a really excellent story.

Leading man, Avery Cates is a 'gunner' - essentially an assassin for hire. He's a tough guy and in the broken down New York City in which he scrapes his living, he is an old man, already into his late twenties. This is an NYC after the riots, a city reminiscent of Berlin following the war – wasteland and scavengers and not enough food. Somers plays down the causes of whatever cataclysm led to this state of affairs and it's a clever move on his part – the effects are far more important as far as the reader is concerned. Cates is part of the criminal establishment, an underground network of rogues and vagabonds who meet up and organise "jobs" and "heists" in the various seedy, moonshine-dispensing bars. Again, this is an established template – elements of Blade Runner and the Mos Eisley Cantina shine through. Nevertheless, those in the know can always be found in these places, toughing it out and killing each for over split drinks. Opposing this set up is the SSF – the System Security Force – a corrupt and ruthless global police who are a law unto themselves and a danger to everyone else. Again, Somers is playing to a classic fictional template – the inversion of the apparent bad men being our heroes and those who should protect society, our villains.

Where Somers steps at least a little way out of the comfort zone is with the eponymous Electric Church. All over this devastated world, folks encounter "Monks" – android creatures into whom the brains of their human converts have been decanted. The doctrine of the church centres on the promise of true immortality inside these strong robot bodies, but the acknowledged and understood truth is that few commit themselves willingly to this sacrament. These monks are scary dudes and a fantastic creation – bland and passive looking, inscrutable and ever-spouting religious psycho babble. Their presence immediately puts everyone on edge.

Our man Cates is hired for a contract kill – nothing surprising in this – it is, after all his stock in trade. However, when the client is the chief of the very same police force that has its sights right in the centre of Cates' forehead, and the target is the leader of the Electric Church and the pay an unimaginable sum... well, he doesn't really have much choice it seems. This is good for us, for it sets up a fun story and highly energised novel. Cates' team is drawn from stock, - the shaky tech expert, the silent, staring psionic, the tough broad twins who can get the hardware and the slick older legend whose mere presence undermines the boss's authority. These folks all have their equivalents in a hundred movies, from The Ladykillers, to The Italian Job to Oceans Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen. Clearly this a formula that works, and Somers makes it work well enough here to produce a very entertaining work.

The Electric Church is a reasonably short novel – and would be shorter still were not every second or third word "Fuck" or "Fucking". I'm not averse to the odd bit of linguistic colour in either fiction or life, but by virtue of the fact I noticed its omnipresence, I'd suggest that Somers probably overdid it a little here. That aside, pretty much everything else in The Electric Church works just fine and Orbit can be justly proud of having brought us a highly engaging and entertaining read. At least one other title in this setting is due from Somers and I look forward to it.

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