Saturday, 19 April 2014

Assured Destruction by Michael F Stewart

Assured Destruction by Michael F Stewart is the first book I've read by the author. It's not technically science fiction, because it's set in the present and contains only existent technology, but it is heavy on the tech and the coding and hacking, so I feel it fits into the same niche. My review copy is of the complete series (trilogy) — the series also being called Assured Destruction — but this review is of the first book only.
You can learn a lot about someone looking through their hard drive...

Sixteen-year-old Jan Rose knows that nothing is ever truly deleted. At least, not from the hard drives she scours to create the online identities she calls the Shadownet.

Hobby? Art form? Sad, pathetic plea to garner friendship, even virtually? Sure, Jan is guilty on all counts. Maybe she’s even addicted to it. It’s an exploration. Everyone has something to hide. The Shadownet’s hard drives are Jan’s secrets. They're stolen from her family’s computer recycling business Assured Destruction. If the police found out, Jan’s family would lose its livelihood.

When the real people behind Shadownet’s hard drives endure vicious cyber attacks, Jan realizes she is responsible. She doesn’t know who is targeting these people or why but as her life collapses Jan must use all her tech savvy to bring the perpetrators to justice before she becomes the next victim.

I was hooked into this book more quickly than I expected to be. The pacing is good and it's not very long, making in a quick read in both senses of the word. Janus wasn't the most likeable character ever, but I didn't hate her either. (Except for her name. And when it's shortened to Jan, my brain automatically jumps to pronouncing it "Yan" — thanks Sweden — which is a male name and bleh. But at least it's in first person, so this isn't a huge issue.)

Jan works for her mum's titular small business, recycling computers and destroying hard drives. Except, as the blurb says, instead of destroying them all, she keeps some and makes a network of Twitter and Facebook aliases out of them. On the one hand, the allure of looking through people's private files is understandable, but then turning them into internet personalities struck me as a little bit strange. I mean in the sense that I can understand why the other characters in the book thought she was weird.

Speaking of being weird, Jan is not a traditional loner hacker, despite her array of imaginary friends. She's actually in the cool group (or one of them?) at school and has friends (well, people she hangs out with that aren't outright frenemies) and boys interested in her. She's also smart but not super smart. What I mean by that is that often in these sorts of stories about smart teenagers, they are hyper-intelligent and think several steps ahead of everyone else. Jan... doesn't. She is smart, especially when it comes to computers, but she's not as careful/paranoid as she should be (or, more accurately, as I would be in the same situation) and she doesn't necessarily think everything through, to her detriment. I suppose this is a more realistic portrayal of "smart teenager" but I have gotten used to (and enjoy) the other kind. 

Another less common characterisation choice is that Jan's mother is in a wheelchair because she has MS. I really liked this portrayal because it's not just a background thing. Jan actively thinks about her mum's heath in several contexts; from feeling bad about not helping more at the shop, to hearing her coming because her wheelchair squeaks, to the lift they have to have in their abode, to fearing for her health and whether her mum is having a good day or a bad day. I don't think I've ever seen such a complete portrayal of a disability/chronic illness that wasn't the main character's (and even then...).

As I said, I enjoyed Assured Destruction more than I expected. It wasn't perfect, but it was fun. I'm planning to start the next book straight away. I would recommend it to fans of contemporary SF or code/computer-based stories. Like I said, it's not technically SF, but it is about a computer geek, and to me that seems to appeal to similar sensibilities. Oh, and fans of contemporary YA should also check it out.

3.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Non Sequitur Press (omnibus edition, April 2014)
Series: Assured Destruction, book 1 of 3
Format read: eARC of omnibus edition
Source: publisher via NetGalley

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