The Karma Booth by Jeff Pearce

Rating: 8/10 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 
Title: The Karma Booth
Author: Jeff Pearce
Genre: horror, science fiction/speculative
URL: Smashwords
Price: US$6.99
Other Information/warnings: Graphic violence (including against women and children), horror, mild sexual content (het)
Summary [from the publisher]:

They say, “Executing a murderer won’t bring your loved one back.” But now it can! The Karma Booth. It’s terrifying. It’s devastating. It will change history, ethics, religion, science, everything. What are its terrible secrets? How does it work? And how can it be stopped?

Ethics consultant and ex-diplomat Timothy Cale is hired by the U.S. government to investigate this earth-shattering scientific breakthrough, and he better do it soon because the moral quagmires and complications are multiplying. Cale and his partner, London police detective Crystal Anyanike, must stop a powerful psychopath on a killing spree while searching for the elusive billionaire behind the Booth’s invention, the one man with the answers to all their questions…

My review:

This is a big book with a compelling, unusual idea – what if you could swap the life of a murderer for their victim? Shove the killer into one Karma Booth, and out of the other comes the dead person, restored to health and life. Easy decision, right? As governments around the world soon discover, as do the scientists trying to wrangle this strange technology gifted to them by a reclusive billionaire, the reality is neither easy nor pretty.

Pearce, using the vehicle of a mild mannered ethics professor (paging Dr Jessica Miller 🙂) and former American diplomat turned Government contract troubleshooter, Timothy Cale, who once saw what no one was ever supposed to witness, explores the ethical conundrums of the initial idea. He then twists it into a true horror story as the Karma Booths start to behave unpredictably, the victims (who come back disturbed and disturbing) start to be killed off by the one killer the Booths couldn’t handle, and various individuals try to grab the booths for their own nefarious ends. Toss in Cale’s previous experiences with a brutal set of otherworldly monkish judges, a sudden uptick in wild animals killing humans, and the re-appearance of a woman, Emily Derosier, who’s been dead for over 80 years, and you’ve got a story which is gripping, confusing, and even mind-boggling.

There are so many ideas, images, and actions in this book, it’s perhaps inevitable that something’s got to give, and in this case, it’s the characters. Timothy is the best fleshed out of the ‘heroes’, but at the end, despite his apparent importance to so many of the central players in this story, he remains something of a cypher, at least to me. We learn lots of facts about him, lots of reactions to him, but I still felt he slipped through my fingers. He didn’t make the same impact on me as Brin Harper did in Buddha on the Road. He’s certainly a likeable character, but there’s a bit too much telling not showing about his characterisation.

The other characters are even hazier. Crystal Anyanike, the black London supercop, stunningly beautiful, clever, athletic – you get the drift – helps Timothy’s investigations into the Booth’s impact, and provides him with a surprisingly lightly sketched in sexual relationship and romance. Yet she never really becomes an individual in the book, and after her impressive attainments and attributes are ticked off, her role in the book could have just as easily have been carried out by Dennis Waterman’s character in The Minder. Her special abilities make almost no difference. Pearce has created a superhero without anything that super to do.

The third member of the Scooby gang is a geneticist, Andrew Miller, whose role is to provide (largely bullshit) science babble, and to drool unsuccessfully over Crystal. He has the potential to provide humour, but never quite manages to.

If Crystal and Andrew hadn’t existed, the book would have probably done just fine without them, because it’s Timothy’s interactions with the resurectees, with the mysterious ‘monks’ of long ago, and with Emily Derosier (who is probably the second most vividly described character in the book), which form the keys to solving the intriguing and dangerous puzzle of what the Booths are for, and what a certain psychopath is trying to use them to do. Which is more than enough to keep the reader glued to the pages.

While I’m banging on about the negatives (because I don’t want to make it sound like this is a bad book), the two other things that bothered me was the bad science and the info-dumping. I could excuse the latter – there’s a lot of ideas and information to convey, a lot of figuring out of what the hell is going on, and with Timothy deliberately portrayed as a layman when it comes to science, he’s the one who has to ask the questions and get the long answers. I just felt there was a little bit too much of it in places. It was well enough handled most of the time. I felt that the book could have done with another couple of editing passes to tighten it up, cut out as much of the exposition as possible, and especially to remove some repeated descriptions of fists colliding with temples.

The science bothered me more than it will some readers, but as this is a genre full of geek readers, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the science to be correct as much as possible. A reference to arsenic-based life forms (which are no such thing) as evidence of an importance premise was just sloppy†, and a crucial epiphany was made from DNA evidence when DNA just doesn’t work that way. Without trying to spoil the story, if you have a DNA sequence from one organism in another organism of a completely different family, that doesn’t mean the latter organism used to be the former, except in a strictly evolutionary sense. If you have enough DNA to uniquely identify one individual, found in another individual of a completely different species, that latter individual is probably going to be horribly deformed, or dead. DNA makes proteins, not souls.

This may not bother most people, and the plot works well enough even if you ignore this fiddle faddle. The fiddle faddle just annoyed me, that’s all.

Now, in case you got the idea that this is a bad novel, put that right out of your heads. It’s a fascinating book which works as excellent speculative fiction as well as horror. The pace is swift, the central idea powerful and challenging, the villains scary as hell, and Cale is a non-heroic hero who makes a nice change from supermen who are blessed with extraordinary abilities and intelligence. (The story is a bit of an anti-superhero treatise in some ways, since super powers don’t make their recipients happier or safer.) Cale’s smart, but not super smart, and brave without being athletic. What he is open minded and empathetic. Humane. Which is a characteristic I adore in protags.

Pearce has a wonderful way with description, especially in the horror scenes, and I guess my main beef with the expository dialogue is that they get in the way of more of this great writing. He creates genuinely creepy people and scenarios – genuinely disturbing – and in a way, the anodyne nature of the good guys is a necessary relief from the vileness.

This is a book I will reread, and think about. It poses some genuine ethical dilemmas and avoids providing pat answers. It explores a rich, wide field of religious, spiritual, scientific beliefs and ideas, asking the reader to think about what would it mean if this were true, if that concept was real. Books which are both entertaining and thought-provoking are rare enough, and for that reason (and because I enjoyed it a lot) I recommend it to you.

†The author, after reading this review, has already revised the story to excise this reference. So no more goofs on that score!

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