A review by tachyondecay
Weapons of the Mind by Owen Greenwald, Paul Kivelson

adventurous mysterious sad medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Plot
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


How far will you go to save everything you hold dear? Will you betray your values? Fight your friends? Become the very thing that you are fighting against? These are questions eternally asked in fiction, especially in science fiction, where the things we imagine we could become can be frightening indeed. Weapons of the Mind continues a long tradition of fugitive arc stories in which a scrupulous protagonist has no choice but to enter the underworld and team up with lowlifes and thieves. However, Owen Greenwald and Paul Kivelson make this trope their own through an intense, thoughtful cosmology that reminds me of David Brin and Iain M. Banks. I received a copy in exchange for a review.

Tala is an Enhancer, someone who has the ability to amplify the properties of substances—whether that’s her own strength or resilience, her support team, or even just inanimate objects and materials around her. Enhancers follow the Tenets, an ancient code of conduct that ensures they use these abilities for the greater good of the Galactic Coalition. Enhancers who forswear the Tenets become Renegades, and Tala has been trained to hunt those. However, a mission gone awry soon has the Coalition, Tala’s mentor, and every authority everywhere thinking she is a Renegade. If she can’t find a way to clear her name and stop the real Renegade, long presumed dead by the galaxy, then not only is her livelihood and career at stake but so is the stability of everything she knows.

The book opens with an extensive prologue that follows Arcus, the main antagonist—we don’t know that at first, but it’s pretty clear by the end that he is Not a Good Dude. From there, Greenwald and Kivelson jump to a day in the life of Tala, introducing us to her and her support team before they embark on what should be a routine mission. The resulting events leave Tala raw, traumatized, and feeling utterly alone.

The action sequences in this book, and the emotional weight that their results engender, are intense. Greenwald and Kivelson seem to have assembled a grab bag of their favourite science-fiction and fantasy goodies: power armour, mentalist and telekinetic abilities, genetic mutation/resequencing, and more. It should be a hot mess; I should be criticizing them for not wanting to put some of their toys back in the toy box. So it’s a testament to their craft that they somehow make it all work.

I think what helps is that the book is intensely devoted to following people. The political and social setup of this universe is right out of space opera, yet this book is not space opera. There are no big space battles, no massive starships crewed by hundreds. The action sequences are almost exclusively one-on-one duels or close-quarters combat against individual hostiles. (An appendix provides an in-universe explanation for this bias, but it doesn’t really matter.) As a result, Greenwald and Kivelson seldom allow themselves to be dragged down into the morass of math and technobabble that, let’s face it, even the best SF authors wade into once in a while. Space battles are hard enough to visualize as it is, let alone describe on a page. Weapons of the Mind neatly sidesteps the issue. Instead, the battles are lavish, individualized action sequences, and they make use of all the fascinating consequences that arise as a result of the novum of Enhancement.

This focus on individuals somewhat carries over to characterization, though in an uneven way. Tala is quite three-dimensional, as she should be, and by the end of the book I had taken quite the liking to Quarack. However, most of the other cast members are somewhat flat and forgettable. Their motives are understandable, yet we don’t really get to know them as people. The two biggest missed opportunities in this area are in Tala’s relationships with Ferric and Scratch, respectively. Ferric is her colleague and part of her support system. The friction between Tala and Ferric is realistic and believable after what they go through, and I like that it takes a while for their relationship to start to mend. However, we get so little from Ferric that he feels like a cipher. Now, in contrast, Scratch is meant to be a cipher. As Tala’s mentor, he is allowed to be old and inscrutable. I just wish we had seen a little more of him hunting her down, or maybe some flashbacks to when they were training. As it is, he never quite escapes being a stock mentor figure who believes he has been betrayed.

The villains suffer from similar issues. Greenwald and Kivelson lampshade this later in the book: Arcus talks a lot. He’s like a competent version of a Bond villain, and it’s equal parts funny and frustrating, because he doesn’t actually give much away. We never really understand why he or his allies are doing what they do, unless you accept the premise that they really are just mad. I’m willing to cut a little slack here given that this is the first book in a series literally called the Renegades trilogy, implying that there is a deeper mystery to be explored. Indeed, Greenwald and Kivelson drop tantalizing clues about this throughout the book. Nevertheless, this all means that we have to endure Tala going up against what is essentially “Thanos, but he mugs at the camera a bunch,” and it does puncture the otherwise intense, actually kind of scary atmosphere of these encounters.

Finally, for a novel on the shorter side, Weapons of the Mind feels a little too long. Some of the scenes go on and on, and there are times when the story feels like it can’t quite make up its mind what it wants to be. An action-adventure? A heist? A train abduction plot? A political intrigue thriller? Unlike Greenwald and Kivelson’s masterful mixing of disparate tropes, the frenetic number of set pieces and subgenres never quite settles into something unified and fun.

Before I wrap up, however, and without getting into spoilers, I need to praise one last thing: the climax and Tala’s breaking point. This is, of course, the moral and emotional fulcrum of the story. This whole time we’re asking ourselves, “Will she do it? Will she go past bending the Tenets and actively break them, break the most sacred ones even? Will she become what she hates?” I won’t tell you what happens, but I will tell you that I couldn’t stop reading at that point in the book. In her final confrontation with Arcus, Tala faces a tough battle not just because he outclasses her in combat skills but because he has nothing to lose; she still does. And the moment where that breaks her, where you realize she knows how deeply she is outmatched by this bad guy yet has no choice but to keep fighting—that’s intense. It’s a weight that the novel initially attempted to settle on us much earlier in the story, with mixed success, yet when the weight returns during the climax, I’m ready for it.

There’s a lot to like about this book. The whole idea of Enhancement is neat, and I appreciate how much Greenwald and Kivelson commit to exploring what it means and implies for Tala and other Enhancers, right down to the whole thing about “don’t Enhance your brain; don’t do it; don’t you do it!” Similarly, the galactic society that they’ve created and the way the characters fit into it is very impressive. And I did enjoy the action sequences (which is not something, as a reader who is largely aphantasic, I often find myself exclaiming). There is a great novel somewhere in here, weighed down by some clunky elements. But I’ve said it before and will say it again: I prefer novels that take big swings, even if they don’t one hundred percent land, and that’s entirely the case here. Weapons of the Mind doesn’t completely satisfy, yet it does tantalize, and it betokens more good things to come from this writing team in the future.

Originally posted at Kara.Reviews.