I’m a bit new to writing reviews, so bear with me if I neglect to observe the conventions of the book-reviewers’ trade; in the interest of proper disclosure, I should note that although Broken was published by Candlemark & Gleam, my own publisher, I bought the book myself and was neither asked to review it nor compensated for writing a review.
Susan Jane Bigelow’s Broken is a work of future-Earth science fiction, focusing on two protagonists: Broken, the former Extrahuman (superhero) who has lost her cause and many of her powers, and Michael Forward, the precognitive boy who must save a future leader of the human race. Both Broken and Michael are incapable of seeing a future for themselves — Broken is the story of how they square with that awareness of their finitude. In the process, both learn the many shapes that love and sacrifice can take, and both decide what they want their lives (and, implicitly, their deaths) to mean for others.
If you know anything about my narrative themes, you’ll recognize immediately that this story was designed to appeal to readers like me. I’m an absolute sucker for existential stories about what human life means as we live with an awareness of death, and I melt at novels that show human kindness in the face of pride, fear, and hatred.
Most readers, though, have trouble enjoying a book on theme alone, and so I’d like to discuss what makes this book not only resonant but also technically adept. Bigelow’s prose is very lucid, only seldom drawing attention to itself — but every now and then, I’ll stumble across a turn of phrase that positively gleams. Her characters are not only plausible but sympathetic, and even the most caricatured characters only grow more believable as the story progresses. While my plot summary gives short shrift to Monica, I found her character absolutely indispensable; more than Broken with her memories of flight and Michael with his dreams of his people’s future, Monica’s uncertainty and fear helped to ground my readerly experience of the narrative. She draws out the best in Broken and Michael — and in herself — as she learns to be brave in the face of a world that takes away all that she loves, and she does it from a position of faith that’s never easy or simple for her to maintain. While at first I was slightly skeptical as to the emotional depth of Broken and Michael, separately or as a team, Monica brought out unsounded depths in both of them that testified to Bigelow’s skill with characterization.
Bigelow has also built a very plausible global state, taking into consideration not only how human politics would change in response to future wars but also how these experiences would shape the geography of New York City and New England. When she wrote of physical spaces, of houses and libraries and roadways, I could see the scars of war and poverty on the infrastructure. Among these landscapes, American radicals and reactionaries seek a return to American statehood or a destruction of the global government — and at times, they find themselves either crossing or taking refuge behind old lines of prejudice. In addition to the shifting geopolitics of Earth, though, humans have adapted to relatively recent contact with alien races and expansion to new planets. Here, Bigelow is attentive to the human race’s capacity for adoration and destruction; scholars study their extraterrestrial neighbors and idealists attempt to imitate their life-styles, while in the capital nonhumans are lynched in the streets. Among humans, too, the emergence of “Extrahumans” inspires the same responses of awe and fear. The Extrahumans develop a fan following and a line of promotional merchandise … and an unswerving mission to hunt down all humans with more-than-human powers, for purposes never entirely clear to the members of the Extrahuman Union. Bigelow’s future-Earth culture is thick, in an anthropological sense; it’s not only cleverly built on the superficial level, it’s also clearly layered with generations of plausible change from our own time. It’s a world that has changed and grown, and although Michael is convinced throughout the novel that his charge will be the world’s salvation or its ruin, Bigelow makes absolutely clear: even in the worst-case scenario, this Earth will go on. It’s truly inspiring worldbuilding — I want to read histories of this world.
As trite as it is to say, Broken put me through my emotional paces; I laughed, I cried, I raged, and above all I hoped. I would highly recommend this book.
You can buy Broken here.