Reposting to include Bill’s new review.
Deadly Memory by David Walton
In 2023’s Deadly Memory, by David Walton, the challenges humanity faces have never been higher. A virus so deadly it can kill nearly every species on the planet is loose, and a pheromone-based drug that allows the wearer to dominate everyone who smells it is in the hands of authoritarians from more than one global power. The source of the substance, and the possible antidote to it, is hidden away, and it will be up to archeologist Samira, her friend Kit in Thailand, and another new friend held prisoner in a high-security facility, to stop the complete loss of freedom… and a near-complete loss of animal life on the planet.
This review contains mild spoilers for 2022’s Living Memory.
In Living Memory, Samira and Kit uncovered an unusual dinosaur fossil and found a strange green substance with it. Alongside their adventures, the book shared the storyline of Prey, a low-status analyst in a gendered, hierarchical society. Sixty-five million years ago on Earth, Prey, an astronomer, discovered an approaching asteroid that would rain destruction on the planet. Despite his low status, Prey struggled to make the societal leaders aware, with mixed success. As the book ended, Prey awoke in an enclosure, alone, surrounded by mammalian aliens.
Deadly Memory picks up there. The USA-side of the story alternates between Samira’s point of view and Prey’s, as she is introduced to the living dinosaur. Prey is isolated and baffled by the ascendance of these strange creatures, who as near as he can tell don’t even have language. It may seem strange against the backdrop of military coups and a global viral outbreak, but the attempts of Prey and Samira to communicate with each other was gripping. While I loved the action-adventure and intrigue parts of the book, the thing I thought about the most, while reading the ARC and after I’d finished it, was the nature of communication.
Meanwhile, in Thailand, Kit still works with the militant princess Mai, the sole survivor of the royal family. Mai plans to take the government back from a Chinese-backed warlord, but she is under-resourced and literally out-gunned. Still, the princess is both resolute and ruthless, a fact that doesn’t sit well with Kit. Mai has right on her side, but she didn’t hesitate to use the domination drug. Now her supply has been stolen. More seriously, the Chinese government has its own source of the substance.
The final third of the book evolves into a convoluted chase sequence. Samira is an archeologist, not a spy. She has no tradecraft and a motley assortment of friends and allies, but she’s going up against the US military and the CIA. (We all know the best tool to use against the military and the CIA is a motley crew, at least in fiction.) The final few chapters were nail-biters for me.
Along the way, there are moments of insight and humor. I loved the moment when Prey deduces that the deadly asteroid was probably the craft that ferried these weird mammals to his home world. I loved the early conversations with Samira and Prey, and the occasional false starts. Samira’s parents are devout Christians, which leads to one of the best lines in the book:
“‘Wait,” Samira said. “You’ve been evangelizing the dinosaur?’”
Like communication, the question of faith is not hand-waved here. Nor is the question of personhood, which in this case goes both ways. Humans, especially those clinging to power, see Prey as an animal at best, a resource to be exploited. On the other hand, it takes Prey a while to see the weird creatures who imprisoned him as having basic intelligence, let alone language, society, etc. And are those the things that make someone a person? As Samira learns more about Prey’s people, she is awe-struck by how advanced they were. And so was I. Having read both science fiction and fantasy novels with dinosaurs in my life, I say with confidence that Walton writes the best ones as far as I’m concerned.
A twist near the very end sets up yet another challenge for Prey and his human friends, while both the plague and the battle for humanity enters a new phase. I enjoyed the book tremendously, and eagerly away the third one, Memory Reborn!
I quite enjoyed David Walton’s first book in his LIVING MEMORY series and while the follow-up, Deadly Memory, didn’t captivate me quite as much as its predecessor, it’s still a worthy sequel and one that has me eager to see how the trilogy ends. I’m not going to summarize, as Marion did that in her review, but I’ll repeat there are some inevitable spoilers for Living Memory to follow.
My favorite aspect of this series remains the absolutely fascinating dinosaur civilization/culture that Walton has dreamed up, with their use of scent communication, a technology that progressed via chemistry and genetics rather than metallurgy and physics, and a dominant/submissive hierarchy based on gender. One reason this book didn’t grab me quite as much is simply because we spend far less time in that pre-K-T extinction world, though we do, thankfully, get a few strong scenes there. Most of the time, though, our connection to that culture comes via the dinosaur named “Prey,” who apparently is the only member of their civilization to have survived, having been awakened from a sort of forced hibernation in book one.
Now held in a secret government site/prison to be studied (and, more importantly to the national security people, “mined” for his pheromones, which they hope to weaponize), we see just how sharp he is as he and Samira slowly learn to communicate. Their growing relationship was probably my favorite part of this book, and honestly, I’d wish we’d spent more time on it to let it breathe a bit more, allow for some more forward and backward steps, more trial and error, more slow gaining of comprehension. What’s here works, but that’s why I wanted more. I liked the deepening characterization, the melding of minds, the exploration of how we define human and animal, and the theme of our species’ tendency to weaponize everything and anything and how maybe that focus —caused by fear and tribalism — might fade if we could truly understand one another at a deeper level than we’re currently able to. I also enjoyed being inside Prey’s head as he tried to figure out what was happening to him, who these strange creatures are, and, more tragically, what had happened to his own people. Like Marion, I particularly enjoyed his early theories (must be aliens) and the moment where Samira’s fundamentalist father proselytizes when he and Prey spend a little time alone.
The spycraft/foreign intrigue/action sequences were solid and often fast-moving but weren’t as successful to me as the Prey-Samira plotline. Part of that was simply that those storylines took away from the latter. Part of it was they moved so fast that they often felt a bit rushed to me, with things happening a bit too quickly and easily (I’d have been happy to have Deadly Memory add another 70-100 pages, not something I often say). And part of it was they felt a bit less plausible. Though that should tell you how good a job Walton does with Prey when the Ancient-Intelligent-Dinosaur-That-Surived-A-65-Million-Year-Nap is the most plausible plot line in the novel.
The novel resolves some of the storylines while also heightening the stakes and sense of tick-tock urgency, meaning readers will be impatiently awaiting book three. Recommended.
I keep saying that Prey’s a great dinosaur, but he’s really a great character! He has layers. He’s a great “unlikely hero.”