The Courier (2016) was recommended to me by a bookseller. She hadn’t read it herself yet. It was recommended to her by a friend, she said, who said it was YA and “kind of like William Gibson.” My first impulse in rating this book was to base my rating on the gap between the “William Gibson” statement and my experience of the book. If I had done that, this would be a 2-star review. That would not be fair. Nothing on the cover or interior review snippets compares this book to Gibson.
I am going to review The Courier based on the story I think Gerald Brandt was trying to tell. Although it has a youthful protagonist, the book is marketed as cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic fiction. YA or not, I think this is a book that would appeal mainly to teens.
The book takes place in 2140 in a seven-level covered city called San Angeles. The mega-city runs from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and east as far as the California central valley, specifically Fresno. Wealthy and powerful people live on the higher levels while the poor and unemployed end up at ground level. Kris Ballard, a sixteen-year-old orphan, is a motorcycle courier who gets an end-of-shift, last-minute assignment. She picks up the envelope at the office of one mega-corporation, but when she goes to deliver it to another mega-corporation, she witnesses a grisly murder, and sees the face of the murderer. Now Kris is on the run, using the on-and-off ramps of the city’s multilevel freeway, while at least two Evil Corporations pursue her.
A sexy eco-warrior named Miller comes to Kris’ aid. He works for a group called ACE, which apparently is a resistance network that fights against the corporations. There are lots of chase scenes, fight scenes, and near misses, and in between Kris crushes on Miller and can’t stop thinking about how much she wishes he would kiss her. The Courier’s plot depends on a couple of twists specifically regarding the “package” Kris has, and the scheme of the villain to personally enrich himself by creating a war between two of the many Evil Corporations.
The action scenes are quite good, and some of the cyberpunk props, like Kris’ high-tech jacket in the beginning of the book, are original and fun. The worldbuilding is confined mostly to the visuals: freeways, bad neighborhoods, and once in a while, like with the jacket, tech. I never found a reason why San Angeles had to be a covered city. I assumed that the earth’s population had burgeoned, and maybe that’s true, but about halfway through the book we learn that there are populated satellite cities, which would imply fewer people on Earth. There is no explanation for how this enclosed city gets water or food, especially since they paved over thousands of acres of California agricultural land as part of the covered city. In one scene, Kris thinks that no matter how fancy a restaurant is, the food all comes from the same place, and I thought we were going to learn that the food was a yeast product, reconstituted fungus or something, but it seems that what Kris means is that food comes from a kitchen and most restaurants have those.
For a book set more than one hundred years in the future, The Courier has some strange anachronisms. Cars still start with ignition keys; Kris tells someone about a car, “The keys are in it, move it yourself.” We have orbiting cities and dueling MegaCorps, but the internet is about where it is now and we see very little of AI or anything like it. The behavior toward women, and the behavior of the women in the book, seems to spring from the 1980s. For instance, after an evil minion kills someone and law enforcement shows up, they let her go because she is cleverly disguised as a waitress — and no one assumes the sniper could be a woman. The IT guy who is a secondary character lives with his mom (she packs his lunch for him) and sports a little hipster ponytail. Or things like this:
The thought of the tortured man having a family entered my head. Was his wife keeping his supper warm?
Um, in this day of microwaves, does anybody “keep supper warm” anymore? I’m serious; would someone in 2143 think that way?
Generally, the motivations for the characters, and their backstories, are not complex. Kris was orphaned and her uncle sexually abused her. The villain is a high-level corporate suit who is motivated by greed; he sends two minions after Kris. One is the Sexual Sadist Minion and one is the Quirky Minion. The Sexual Sadist Minion leers, paws at his belt buckle, and threatens to rape Kris once he captures her, because when your protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl, that’s how you let the reader know she is in real danger, right? None of the characters, including Kris, seemed very deep or very well thought-out. Miller is a trained “operative,” and he is twenty years old. He thinks a sixteen-year-old is too young for him to date. Well, good for him, but, again, that’s about the extent of his character development.
The book uses shifting points of view, from third-person to Kris’ first-person narrative, to tell the story. I drifted away from the story with every point of view shift, especially with the flatter characters such as the villain and the IT guy. I did finish The Courier, but it was through force of will, not because I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.
The Courier is the first book of the SAN ANGELES series, and the second book, The Operative, is out now. Perhaps it provides some explanation for Kris’s world.
There is nice action in The Courier and some interesting ideas. This book was not for me, but probably younger readers or readers who prefer action and clearly evil adversaries with no degree of complexity will enjoy this.
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