I'm pretty sure I met Jack Skillingstead at Westercon 71 last year in Denver but, if I did, he was there as the husband of the Literary GoH, Nancy Kress, rather than in his own rights. Having now read this, I fully expect to meet him next on his own merits. I devoured it in a day.
It begins like a thriller, a gritty war story, as we follow Olivia Nikitas, a war reporter covering the civil war in Syria from the front lines of Aleppo. I have to point out that we tip our hat to science fiction pretty quickly, as we aren't in 2019 but a decade hence, ten weeks into a hesitant peace. Olivia is old guard, having been there for six years, which means that she doesn't even arrive until our future. However, science fiction just as quickly takes a back seat to the grittiness.
Skillingstead handles this magnificently. Olivia leaves the comparatively safe Green Zone for a trip into the Old City because she's heard reports of torture in an old madrassa and wants to check them out. With her are her boyfriend, an aid worker called Brian, and her local guide, Jodee Abadi. And, out of nowhere, an insurgency erupts, leaving Jodee dead in the street and Brian bleeding out heavily. Olivia hustles him into the madrassa to get away from the bullets, though he dies quickly enough in an underground room, his artery severed.
This is the same underground room where torture has clearly been happening, as one of its victims also breathes his last as they arrive. And, out from under his head, crawls some sort of beetle, which promptly flies at Olivia and bites her in the back of the head. So far, so weird, but you ain't seen nothing yet. A few panicked wishes later and Brian's alive again, as is the torture victim and indeed is Jodee outside. The world has apparently changed.
And we have no idea why, because Skillingstead hides why better than I've done because I'm writing a brief synopsis and he has time to grow his story. He has Olivia make it back to the States, to Brian's place where she gets to struggle with the idea that she's actually in a relationship, before he has her stolen away by kidnappers who seem unwilling to explain why. This whole section is a surreal trip, not only because she has no idea why she's there but because, as time passes, she starts to realise that she's more important than she thought.
And, given that it's mentioned in the back cover blurb, I'll add that the bug in Aleppo didn't just bite her, it dug into the back of her head, because it's the interface between her, the new Shepherd of an ancient order, and a machine that allows her to shift the future direction of the world by deciding which potential future it'll progress into. Talk about sudden realisation of power!
Of course, because this isn't YA, it's not that straightforward. For a start, there's some sort of struggle for supremacy within this order, one faction of which is really not happy about the idea of the first female Shepherd. What's more, the inadvertent change Olivia imposed on the world to save Brian had a slight side effect: the introduction of weaponized smallpox to the world with the likelihood of killing hundreds of millions of people.
As you might imagine, Olivia simply needs to reconnect to the machine and make a further change, but it really isn't that simple. She can only connect once a day, or her head will explode, and every change she tries simply makes things worse. It seems that the crisis points in history from which possibilities can emerge are rather complex in nature and not easily messed with.
I adored how this built, because Skillingstead hits Olivia with way more than anyone could cope with at one time but refuses to give her any time to come to terms with it. No, she has to run and she has to change things and she has to come to terms with all of this on the road while the world is falling apart in increasingly powerful ways around her.
I also liked how it ended, not just because of Olivia's eventual approach to things but because of a number of revelations that hit as powerfully as the best twists. I liked how this wild power is even more wildly problematic and sometimes the best solution is good old fashioned detective work, pounding the streets and talking to the right people. I liked how the entire book is built on a particular inevitability but the author still keeps us guessing all the way to the very end how everything's going to turn out.
Talking of people, I liked how Skillingstead shows us the worst in people but also the best. Astina, a Native American lady who drives an eighteen-wheeler for Walmart deserves her own frickin' book. Her presence here, as a sort of oasis of sanity while the world dies, was emphatically needed and a real joy to read. Olivia's relationship with Brian was handled well too, in a very different way to the usual.
Apparently, Skillingstead has written enough to land him a Wikipedia page. I see two previous novels, albeit not recently2009 and 2013 respectivelyand a whole string of short stories, many of them for Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, some of which have been brought together into the 2009 collection, “Are You There and Other Stories”. He's been nominated for major awards and I doubt that he'll avoid winning for long. I just hope that he doesn't take as long as usual to write another novel, because I could happily read one of these a week. ~~ Hal C F Astell