The Darwin Elevator by Jason Hough

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“Skyler looked at Tania, found her white as a sheet, eyes wide with terror. He followed her eyes to see a subhuman turning the corner at the far end of the computer room. Naked, covered with dirt, blood, and old scars—more gruesome than most. It had an open wound on the side of its face, rancid with infection, revealing the bone beneath. The creature tried to scream at them, but all that came out was a sick gurgling sound.”

The Darwin Elevator is Jason Hough’s debut novel, and, if he continues to improve, I think he could become a real star. Darwin takes place in approximately 2050. In Hough’s future (which is scarily familiar), the Earth has been visited twice by an alien species known as “the builders”. There has never been any contact, rather, a spaceship simply shows up every few years, and delivers a surprise. First was the space elevator, centered in Darwin, Australia. Next was the plague, called SUBS, a disease that turns those who survive it into “sub-humans”, capable of only the basest emotions. For some reason, the elevator shields the area around it from the disease, meaning that the entire population of the Earth is now contained in the former city of Darwin. The book centers on three characters: Skyler Luiken, captain of a scavenger ship, and with a rare immunity to the disease. Tania Sharma, a young, brilliant and beautiful scientist living aboard the orbiting space stations attached to the elevator. And Neil Platz, the most famous man in the world. A true businessman, he capitalized when the elevator came down on his property. He owns all the advanced technology (space stations, water sterilizers, etc.) in the book.

Hough’s prose is fine. Workmanlike and sparse, but it does what it is suppose to do, and that is set the frenetic pace that lasts almost the entire book. Really, the pacing of this book is phenomenal. It was as if the pages turned themselves. And as this is Hough’s debut novel, we can only expect the beauty of his prose to improve… and wow. That is some great potential to be tapped into here.

It starts to break down a little when it comes to the characters. I didn’t find Skyler that bad, he just seemed a bit reactive throughout the entire story, and his personality was a bit bland. I imagine one is supposed to set his or her own traits on top of Skyler’s to gain a greater emotional connection. Tania was the same way, just worse. Far more bland, far more reactive. The primary antagonist, Russell Blackfield, is made out to be such a disgusting and creepy man he becomes a caricature. The book makes numerous references to his charisma and charm, but it never came across. Such a nasty antagonist was hard to relate to, and he came off as an “evil for evil’s sake” villain, even though that’s not what he was.

The supporting cast, however, was excellent. Neil Platz was a brilliant character, full of wit and charisma. I had no trouble believing he was the most famous person on Earth (he reminds me of Elon Musk—I’d be surprised if there wasn’t at least a little inspiration there). Kelly Adelaide and Samantha are the book’s two kick-ass female characters, and I was disappointed that they were relegated to relatively minor roles. Prumble, as the everyman, was probably my favorite character in the whole book, and I hope we get to see more of him as the series goes on. Hough seems to have tied his knot off fairly well, but I can see Skyler needing some help on something else in the future…

The world that Hough has created is vibrant and realistic, and altogether too familiar for comfort. Within the time frame set by the book, we will have the technology that the residents of Hough’s Earth have, and were we to be the subject of an alien visitation…

The caste system set up in the wake SUBS makes perfect sense. Those with good skills are elevated to a higher station in life. Those who don’t are too busy staying alive to learn one. And then the jealousy radiates up the chain. The roles of people like Blackfield, Prumble, and Skyler and his crew are entirely plausible, and the actions of the characters without any impact on the plot are also wholly realistic.

As for complaints, I’ve already registered my discontent with many of the main characters. I was also a little unclear as to what exactly was happening during the final action scene near the end, and although it is possible that I missed something in my frantic page turning, I think it is far more likely that the conclusion was just unclear.

In conclusion, a wonderfully paced, action packed book that kept me turning pages constantly. The characters could have been better, but all the same, a well-built world and gripping premise led to a thrilling reading experience. I think we can expect exciting things from Mr. Hough.

Final Rating: 8/10

Note: A digital copy of this book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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