Book Review: Zer0es by Chuck Wendig
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Zer0es
Publisher: Harper Voyager (8/18/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Readers are taken on a wild ride through the dark side of the internet in what might be Chuck Wendig’s most ambitious novel to date. Exploring the world of hackers, cybercrime and artificial intelligence, Zer0es is a sci-fi thriller featuring the largest cast he’s ever written, as well as a scope that spans the entire nation. As a fan of the author, I knew I had to check this one out as soon as I learned about it, and by the by, I also found reading it to be an enlightening experience given how different it is from his past work I’ve enjoyed. It was easy to spot areas where Wendig played to his strengths and conversely those areas where he may have been out of his comfort zone. Any way you look at it though, this was an interesting one.
Zer0es basically makes for fabulous popcorn entertainment, like a summer Hollywood blockbuster in book form. In fact, as strange as it sounds, all I could think about was the movie Now You See Me as I was making my way through the first handful of chapters – not that the film bears any similarity to the book’s story at all, other than the fact both feature a group of extremely talented individuals (in NYSM, street magicians; in Zer0es, hackers…though to a computer programming and coding noob like me, hacking might as well be magic) who are brought together by a mysterious benefactor. No, what struck me was the similar tone of both movie and novel, exuding a vibe meant to provide both fun and entertainment to the consumer experience. You know those kind of stories.
Still, what I really want to talk about in this review are the characters. This group of five hackers calling themselves “the Zeroes” – Chance, Reagan, Aleena, DeAndre and Wade – held the key to my experience of this book, and were often at the center of what I loved and what I didn’t love about it. In a general sense, the type of Hollywood blockbuster energy that came off the story wasn’t so very different from what I got off of the characters either – to a one, they were intelligent, charismatic and witty, delivering line after line of cleverly constructed dialogue like they were all reading off a written script. Wendig is a master of dialogue writing after all, and he has a very distinct and droll sense of humor that’s unmistakable when you see it; it is this talent of his that made me fall in love with his protagonists Miriam Black or Mookie Pearl in their respective urban fantasy series.
In a book like Zer0es though, I think the biggest challenge was to make each of the five hacker main characters stand out, and the results came out mixed. Wendig crafts very compelling characters, and I can’t deny that all of them are memorable and unique in their own way. At the same time though, Zer0es is probably also the most “mainstream” book I feel the author has ever written, complete with an improbable yet wildly enjoyable premise that’s heavy on the edge-of-your-seat action and suspense. In keeping with this, the characters also have a very “Hollywood-movie-like” feel to them, despite efforts to give them convincing backgrounds and personalities. In many ways, they remain as archetypal as the hacker roles they are pigeonholed into – the bombastic no-filter-between-her-brain-and-her mouth Reagan is of course the professional online troll, for example, and the libertarian hippie gun-loving conspiracy theorist Wade is naturally the aging cipherpunk who still prefers to do things the “old-school way”.
Still, while the characters may be thinly-written, they were still a lot of fun to read about. The five of them have mass audience appeal, perhaps precisely because they play to reader expectations. Of course, the downside of clichés is that it also makes it harder to care about the characters. I readily admit to having trouble engaging with any of them at the start, which was absolutely not helped by the fact all of them came off as arrogant, snarky snobs who were too smart for their own good (but like I was saying, when you’re playing to the hacker stereotype, all that is most likely by design). Of all of them, Reagan was especially off-putting (again, by design) and I never grew to like her, though by the end of the book I did develop a soft spot for Wade, partly because he showed the most leadership but also mainly because he’s someone very different from a lot of Chuck Wendig’s other characters. This is the first time I’ve seen him juggle this many characters in a novel, and even though the balance wasn’t perfect, there was an undeniable thrill to reading all the different POVs.
Then there was the story. For a novel of this length, I blew through it relatively quickly. Like Wendig’s other books, the prose was smooth, easy to read, and the narrative was extremely addictive. As someone who knows completely zip about hackers and hacking, I was thoroughly captivated by the premise, though someone with greater knowledge in networks and cyber-security might find it overly simplistic. Regardless of who you are though, some suspension of disbelief is most definitely required especially once we move into the second half of the novel and the plot starts getting involved in some really insane and out-there theories. But hey, isn’t that what I signed up for? Hollywood blockbuster, remember.
All in all, while Zer0es probably isn’t my favorite book by Chuck Wendig (that distinction still belongs to The Cormorant, third book of his Miriam Black series) I still feel that it’s a bold move in the right direction. It’s always exciting to see one of my favorite authors do something different, and this was an unexpected delight indeed. Well played, Mr. Wendig. I hope to see more of the Zeroes in the future.