Friday, August 16, 2013

Book Review: A Shadow in the Flames, Michael G. Munz

I recently had the opportunity to read A Shadow in the Flames, the first novel by Seattle-based sci-fi/fantasy writer Michael G. Munz.  A near-future science fiction adventure/thriller, the story follows a colorful cast of characters whose personalities and backgrounds are slowly revealed and developed throughout the book.  In the run-down city of Northgate we are introduced to Michael Flynn, a young, hopeful, but unemployed man whose only family is a freelancer named Diomedes.  The plot begins to take shape when the apartment shared by Diomedes and Michael burns to the ground, and the two embark on an adventure to determine the cause of the incident.  Munz also introduces a second set of characters conducting excavations on the moon, whose own discoveries are unveiled in chapters interspersed throughout the book.
As Diomedes and his new protégé Michael seek out answers about the fire, additional characters enter the picture: Brian, an overly-inquisitive reporter who is a magnet for trouble; Caitlin, a level-headed member of an underground intelligence-gathering organization; Gideon, a morally-conflicted vigilante; and my personal favorite, Felix, an independent information collector who accompanies Diomedes and Michael throughout much of their adventure, adding a dash of dry humor as needed. 
A Shadow in the Flames is written in the third person, with the character focus changing each chapter.  This writing style gives the reader a glimpse of the characters' thoughts, motivations, and backgrounds, but not everything is revealed.  At first I found this a bit aggravating, since most of my recent reads were written in the first-person perspective.  However, after more thought, I realized that Munz's choice for perspective is part of the mystery inherent to the story and is consistent with a central theme in the book: that things (and people) are not always what they seem. 
While there is certainly a focus on character development throughout the book, it does not overburden the arc of the story; there are plenty of action sequences and entertaining dialogue to keep the energy level high.  Although sometimes interrupted by the injection of the "moon discovery" side-plot, the story still flows well overall, making the book a page-turner. 
Munz also has a talent for painting a picture of a mid-21st century Earth that is both plausible and intriguing.  For example, there are several references to cybernetic implants and enhanced artificial limbs which are more advanced than current technology but within the realm of possibility in the next century.  The descriptions of the city of Northgate are bleak and dark, but shamefully decadent, reminiscent of the noir style and urban landscape in Philip K. Dick's novels (to include Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? interpreted in the 1982 film Blade Runner).
I would be remiss if I did not mention what I consider to be the most endearing quality about Munz's writing style: his own personality and incredible sense of humor shine through in the dialogue and traits of the characters he has created.  One of Felix's lines early in the book is clearly a homage to The Blues Brothers, and it sets the tone for the character's dry wit and clever one-liners for the rest of the book.  It is really a treat to see a writer successfully blend these humorous elements seamlessly with more serious moments to enhance the narrative.
As a long-time reader of science fiction, I found A Shadow in the Flames book to be well-written, entertaining, and a great read for anyone who is a fan of the genre.   It is also accessible enough to be enjoyed by a new reader of science fiction, since the story flows well and makes for a quick read.  I would recommend this book as a fun summer read, or to any sci-fi fans looking to get hooked on a new series: after all, this is the first book in a series, The New Aeneid Cycle, with the second one on the way soon....