You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get from a debut novel. Sometimes they come out of nowhere to blow you away — “Really? You did that on your first try?” (OK, we all know it wasn’t really a “first try” — drafts and all — but still). Sometimes you’re left wondering if perhaps the author should have tried for “debut short story” or “debut blogging” or even “debut fly swatting.” And then there’s the more common middle ground, where you can see some strong concepts, a good character or two, maybe a singularly excellent skill (vivid imagery, strong pacing), but the entire effort falls a little short, leaving you unsatisfied with this attempt, but also interested in seeing what this author does next. And that’s squarely where The Forever Watch, a debut novel from David Ramirez, lies.
The setting is a familiar sci-fi one — a generation ship midway between its home port of Earth (usually an uninhabitable Earth, as is the case here) and whatever planet promises a new home. This is the last remnant of humanity — we aren’t told why or how — and they live aboard the Noah in relative comfort as part of a seemingly light-touch dystopian/autocratic society with a relatively rigid hierarchy based on one’s psi powers. “Mission criticals” are at the top with their indispensable or uber-powered abilities, while those with nearly no psi powers do things like clean up the parks. Everyone is tested and trained from youth for the jobs that seem to suit them best, all under the watchful eyes of Information Security.
Hana Dempsey is not at the very top, but not far below, thanks to her strong ability in “Touch” — a psi talent that allows her to shape the “plastech” that everything in the ship is made of into anything she can imagine. Given a bit of machine amplification — she can create entire buildings on her own. Which is part of her job as an administrator in City Planning.
Leonard Barrens is a cop with extraordinary strength and despite his spot well down the societal ladder from Hana, the two develop at first a friendship and then a romance. What starts the whole book rolling though is when Leonard asks for Hana’s help in hunting down a serial killer whose victims are left literally in pieces.
The Forever Watch begins then as a police procedural/murder mystery. But it soon picks up a host of other concerns: additional mysteries are layered on having to deal with the ship’s history and its mission, the novel turns into a political dystopia story as some of the ship’s inhabitants begin to turn against the oppressive social structure/leadership, a bit of horror creeps into the mix as rumors begin to circulate about a killer called “Mincemeat,” as well as of strange monsters lurking in the ship’s tunnels, and a hard sci-fi plotline dealing with emergent AI also starts to play a major part in the story.
Ramirez is biting off a lot here, on top of all the world-building necessary to make the Noah feel like a real culture, and to be honest, it isn’t all successful. The best part is certainly the world-building, which feels well-thought out for the most part (the psi-powers were a bit vague in terms of the society over time — a bit of a nagging issue as I read), coming to sharply realized life. The other bits — the mystery, the AI, the dystopia — were weaker, more plodding, less energetic, and at times (especially with the AI) going down well-trod paths. The mystery lost the sense of urgency it began with and was marred by some implausible moments. The dystopia felt a little shallow, with one of the big reveals being not much of a surprise, especially if one is familiar with dystopia. And I’m never a fan of plots that move along because people who should talk to each other don’t (when a character wonders, “Damn you Leon. Why didn’t you talk to me last night?” I wondered the same). Finally, Hana was a bit too obtuse about certain things than I could readily accept.
The pacing/sense of energy often wasn’t helped by the narrative, which especially in the second half felt too summative, with a lot of first-person: then this happened then this then this. An unfortunate dive now and then into lengthy and often unnecessary techno-speak didn’t help matters. The narrative style bled the novel of a lot of its early energy and suspense and by the latter third I was becoming tempted to skim a bit.
What kept me from doing so was partly the twists and turns the story took in some places, which kept the thought-level of the book fresh even if some of the plotting or style felt otherwise. I also was mostly engaged by the character of Hana, especially in the first half of the book when she was more involved with the society around her in her role as a boss to her employees (one of whom was my favorite character in the novel), in her response to her just finished role as a Breeder, and in her position betwixt and between differing social classes (she has rich higher-up friends, and she’s a friend/lover to low-on-the-pole Leonard). Though I will say I liked the societal aspects of that romance more than the actual romantic aspects of it. I can’t say I ever felt the two fully as a couple no matter the words trying to convince me otherwise. And I’ll just say as well that some people can write sex scenes/talk and some cannot and when you cannot, you really, really cannot. You can guess where I’d put Ramirez.
The Forever Watch is a thoughtful book, a novel of ideas (if maybe one or two too many to be fully realized), with a strong premise, a captivating setting, and some nicely handled plot twists. It also has a lot of first book weaknesses — pacing problems (the second half much slower), narrative voice issues, and so on. It’s mostly worth it for the revelations about the ship and its missions — though it’s a close call. But there’s more than enough here in this debut to make me put Ramirez on a list of new authors to watch for; I’ll be interested to see what’s next for him.