Terry Brooks is best known for his fantasy novels (particularly the SHANNARA series) but with Street Freaks (2018) he tries his hand at science fiction for the first time. The results are … fine. This is hardly a game-changing or genre-bending novel, but a fast-paced, reasonably interesting story that belongs as much in the dystopian genre as it does science fiction. Brooks’s distinctive prose (clear but liable to repeat itself) is matched well with a collection of interesting characters and some fun world-building.
The story begins when teenager Ash Collins receives a warning from his father through his vidview, telling him “Go into the Red Zone. Go to Street Freaks. Don’t wait … “The connection ends before the message is complete, and minutes later Ash’s apartment is invaded by men in hazmats. He makes a dash for it, and manages to escape into the polluted streets of Los Angeles, with only a limited amount of his medication and very little idea of where he’s going.
The Red Zone is a dangerous district in the heart of the city, and Ash has no idea what Street Freaks could be. He’s on his own as he makes his way through the unfriendly streets, looking only to find answers about his father, his condition, and whatever secrets he may have been hiding at BioGen, the company where he worked.
Without giving away too much more, Ash falls in with a typical ragtag bunch of misfits: those that’ve been reworked by science and rejected by society, forming their own little family in the heart of the Red Zone. Having won their trust and heard their stories, it’s to them that Ash turns when he’s ready to seek out answers to his own questions.
Brooks is a solid writer who can paint a clear picture of his invented worlds and what’s happening in them. There is some interesting world-building here, such as the elite Achilles Pod and the fact that the USA is now referred to as the United Territories, not to mention that familiar sci-fi staple: young people who have been experimented on and gained preternatural strengths as a result.
The novel’s weak points are its characterization and plot. Ash Collins never really comes alive as a character, and most of what happens to him is pretty predictable, from parsing out who he can and can’t trust, to the secret that his father was hiding from him. The Street Freaks (some of which are given ridiculous names; I can’t take a guy who calls himself “the Shoe” very seriously) are enjoyable but not particularly interesting supporting characters, and Ash’s love story with Cay Dumont — a pleasure synth designed to service men — is about as deep as a paddling pool.
But Street Freaks is a fun, light read that shows a new side to a familiar author, and ends on a note that suggests a sequel isn’t out of the question.