By KB Spangler
“Wouldn't life be easier if the psychopaths didn't blend in?”
Agent Peng page 236
So we are kicking off Independent Writer Month here on the review series by going back to a world created by KB Spangler. It's a world much like our own, except that right after 9/11 a government cybernetics program was launched. This program created a group of men and women who would be linked to each other and able to access databases without any equipment except what was in their heads. The program worked, but unfortunately it was sabotaged by its creators. The implants were designed to break down the will and personalityof the agents and render them mentally broken meat puppets for use. Fortunately these immoral men were thwarted by one of their very agents when he met a young lady named Hope... but that's not the plot of this novel.
This novel takes place after that story. In this one we follow Agent Rachel Peng. She is a former member of the CID, differently sighted, and a cyborg of Texan-Chinese ancestry attached to the Washington DC Metro Police Department. She is joined by her partner Raul Santino, a police officer with more degrees than a teacher’s lounge, an army veteran detective Mark Hill, and hard-boiled homicide investigator Zockinski. Together, they fight crime! Weird Crime! When they get called in on a robbery gone wrong, it is not the crime itself that is weird, but everything surrounding it. Who breaks into the White House and kills a secret service member in order to steal an old lumpy piece of half-corroded metal? How does this tie back to the oh-so-handsome and wealthy Senator Hanlon? The aforementioned Senator is the owner of the company that developed the implant and brainwashing process the agents suffered through, and the greatest political enemy they have domestically. Most importantly, how does Agent Peng’s investigation turn into a trap that might destroy the OACET and spell the ruin of all 350 remaining cyborgs?
Also showing up again is Agent Jason Atran; computer genius, pretty boy, and asshole trying to reform. I say “trying to reform” because after making a very bad impression in the first book Agent Atran has been trying to change his behavior, especially with Agent Peng. This is more front-and-center in this book as the two agents are finding themselves repeatedly working together and Agent Peng is forced to turn to Agent Atran for help. You see, Agent Atran is pretty awesome with computers and Agent Peng is...well... she can find puppies on her tablet. This makes her the best-worst cyborg ever if you ask me. Another interesting note is that we have Agent Phil from the bomb squad returning along with Bell, a young lady who was introduced in Maker Space. In fact all of three of them are brought back together as a unit because they're in a polyamorous relationship. Ms. Spangler has a very good history of writing inclusively (I mean look at our main character) and she continues that tradition. We don't spend a lot of time on the trio's relationship because it's not important to the story and Agent Peng states pretty firmly that she doesn't get it. That said it is treated respectfully as a real adult relationship, not as a phase or sign of decadence. It is not turned into some freak show exhibit for the reader’s pleasure; it's noted and it's part of the characters but isn't turned into a drum to bang on. While I'm personally monogamous, I like that treatment. On the flip side we also see more of Agent Peng's girlfriend Becca who was also introduced in the second book. There isn't a lot of time spent on their relationship either but... well it's not really part of the story so why would you?
This is Senator Hanlon's first appearance in the book series and I like how he's done. He's a man in full control of himself. He is publicly charming and considerate enough to make friends with secret service agents and the staff members of lobbyists that he does business with. He's also a cold, calculating, amoral monster who doesn't hesitate to murder people when they become liabilities and try to take that murder and use it against his political enemies without a single tinge of hesitation or mercy. He's up against a cabal of cyborgs who can command any electronic device, penetrate any encryption, and many of them were trained government military or intelligence operatives before they got super powers. He is still able to force them to fight a grinding slow war of political attrition to unseat him and make him face some consequences for his actions. Part of that is the fact that the cyborgs are forcing themselves to follow the rules (think of it as part of the same reason why Superman just doesn't heat laser Lex Luther to death and be done with it), but a lot of it comes down to Hanlon's cunning and cold blooded savagery. Ms. Spangler is wise enough to use Hanlon sparingly, making his presence felt by the actions of his minions and allies both directly and indirectly. This turns the whole thing from a battle of super powered cyborg soldier and cop vs middle aged man with a title to one of a single woman with a few pieces of a puzzle vs vast, faceless, machine operating in the dark. It also interjects a high degree of uncertainty (which is good for a book like this!) into everyone's actions. Are those gunmen working for Senator Hanlon or for someone else? The lobbyist approaching from the telecom companies (I'll come back to this), is he moving on his own, or did someone put him up to this as a sting operation? With Agent Peng having to constantly guess (even with her superpower of being able to view your emotional state through her cybernetics) at what's really behind the actions of others, she finds herself having to second guess her every move. I hate Senator Hanlon's guts as a character but he is well used here.
Ms. Spangler also reminds us in this book that she's very good at writing politics, as another thread is the said lobbyist. The telecommunications companies have supported Senator Harlon to the hilt as a matter of survival. After all, if everyone gets the implant and can access the internet at the speed of thought, what the hell do we need comcast for? Our favorite cyborgs in OACET however are willing to cut our modern day robber barons a piece of the pie if they'll drop the Senator like a hot rock in a Pheonix summer (look it gets up to a 120 degress down here alright?). To be fair, the first generation implant is too much power to hand out to just anyone, with it you can just walk right through any digital security and communicate what you find through a channel no one can jam or block. There is no privacy from an OACET cyborg save what they grant you. Then there's the hive mind issues, since you're in constant communication that is the next best thing to telepathy, there's a lot of bleed through. You can experience emotions, memories, all sorts of things through the link. That's something that could bring it's own set of problems. I certainly would prefer to keep my own head private and I dare say that most people would also feel that way. We do get to see some interesting debates on these subjects in the book and I do like that Ms. Spangler isn't shying away from just how much social upheaval and chaos could spring from this, while also pointing out the vast array of benefits mostly by just letting us see those benefits in actions. For example, Mako Hill, an agent who married another agent and fathered a child shows us an array of cyborg keyed technology that makes parenting a toddler so much easier. There's also a bit of a look at the efforts someone with superpowers would have to go through to raise a semi-normal child, like posting signs to remind everyone to vocalize so their kid can learn to speak English. I'll be honest, I would read a book that was made up of just the OACET agent's interactions with each other and outsiders. If Ms. Spangler ever wants to write Tuesday at OACET, I'll be there though that might be the Anthropologist in me talking. Anyway, the political intrigue in this book is done very interestingly and kept to a level that an average person can understand.
We also see more of Agent Peng's boss Patrick Mulchay and his wife Hope. They're the main characters of the webcomic that started this universe, A Girl and Her Fed. I'm a fan of the webcomic so I did enjoy seeing them but they don't steal the show in this story, letting Agent Peng and her crew have center stage while getting some character development and fun of their own. So the good news is that if after reading the Agent Peng books you want more, there's more waiting for you, but you don't need to read it to understand what's going on in the books. While part of a shared world, the books are all self-contained stories that tell you everything you need to know to follow the story within the pages of the novel itself. I approve of this deeply. In fact Mulchay is in this story mainly to give Peng someone to report to and remind us that she's not barreling about alone here. Hope is in here to remind us that Agent Peng can fight and that Hope is walking murder on two legs.
There is also plenty of action in this book, we’ve got gun fights, fist fights, a boxing match, foot and car chases through downtown Washington DC! We have robbery, murder, resisting arrest, and possibly even tax evasion! Through it all Agent Peng displays a level of human competence and entertaining slip ups that makes for tense sequences and moments where you're snickering at her pain. We also get to meet the cuddly hippos, a group of government assassins turned cyborg and they play an interesting role in the action scenes while also providing another example of OACET restraint. Again we could see that they could simply kill Senator Hanlon at any time but that wouldn't fulfill their goals, so they keep playing by the rules and slowly but surely grind Hanlon down. This is alternated with the action to keep the reader on their toes and invested in the result. I had a blast reading this book, in fact I read it twice in the last month. So while there were a number of characters I wish Spangler would give more time to, I have to praise her ability to keep the story going and not let herself get dragged along on pointless side stories. For good action, interesting political intrigue and characters I actually like going through all of it, State Machine by KB Spangler gets an A-. Seriously pick up this series on Amazon or at the girlandherfed web site. You'll thank me for it.