I’ve actually not read the first book of the Brilliance Saga, but was reassured when told I could read A Better World without having to tackle Brilliance first. And that was absolutely correct. Not once did I feel lost or confused, thanks to a detailed recap of prior events in introduction chapters. As a new reader, that’s always appreciated (and I’m sure those familiar with the series might also find the reminders helpful, if it’s been a while since you read book one).
Taking place in the not-too-far future, this series is based on the premise that 1% of the population are born as “Brilliants”, individuals who possess special abilities allowing them to do some pretty amazing things. After 30 years, this has created a growing social chasm between these exceptional people and the vast majority who are “norms”. As with the case of most societies where such a divide occurs, you have dissension and a clashing of ideologies. And then you get the violence.
Fear has led the government to clamp down on brilliants, leading some of the extremist groups to fight back. A terrorist organization of brilliants called the Children of Darwin have shut down Cleveland, Tulsa, and Fresno, cutting off power and supplies to these cities. Nick Cooper, former anti-terrorism agent and a brilliant himself, has been called in by the president to help stop those responsible and to prevent a civil war.
Those who have read Brilliance would already be familiar with Cooper, though I was only meeting him for the first time. As a character, he makes a fascinating study. He’s a brilliant, but also a dedicated to hunting down abnorms involved in terrorist activity. The crimes perpetrated by the Children of Darwin go against everything he stands for, but the methods used by the government for controlling brilliants have also proven questionable, like taking Tier 1 children from their parents and placing them in “academies” which are nothing more than maximum security prison camps and brainwashing facilities. Cooper has realized that the situation isn’t black and white, and has already shifted alliances once. The questions and the indeterminate grey areas continue, and because things are never as they seem, you never know what’s going to happen next. Cooper, who has always believed in doing the right thing, is placed in one moral dilemma after another when he realizes he could be harming more people than he saves.
Even good intentions can lead to disastrous consequences, and I think it’s this theme which makes Cooper’s personality easier to take, separating him from the multitudes of do-gooder protagonists from a lot of other books. He came across initially as a rather self-righteous and naïve character, but by the end I could hardly fault him, as he goes through a rather rough time learning these difficult lessons. There were several tremendous game-changing developments I hardly saw coming, which just thickens the plot. As tensions between norms and abnorms continue to escalate, and the population in the besieged cities grow ever more desperate, I started to wonder if war really was inevitable. The ending will probably shock you as it did me.
There were only a couple issues that took away some of the impact, which I think bears mentioning. In the book, the government was able to mobilize 75,000 troops in a matter of hours to the rural plains of Wyoming, but then struggles to find enough manpower to shift and transport food to three mid-sized cities full of starving people even after a week? I don’t know if I buy that. Debating plausibility in a science fiction novel is probably a moot point, but the story still takes a hit in my eyes, mainly because the plight of Cleveland plays such a huge role. I also love the idea of brilliants, and the explanations for individual powers are pretty unique; in many of the cases, they are based on principles of science and physiology. A woman can become “invisible”, for example, moving unseen simply by being able to predict exactly when to move where no one will be looking. A man seemingly moves at super human speeds, but only because he perceives time differently than everyone else, experiencing each one second as slightly more than eleven. In contrast, I wasn’t entirely clear on the nature of Cooper’s own gift, which involves “reading intent”; perhaps it was better explained in the first book, but rather than a brilliant, he really just came across as a regular guy who was extraordinarily bright and perceptive.
Otherwise, I thought this was very enjoyable. While jumping on board mid-series might work with this book, it may not be possible for the next. A Better World does end on a pretty serious cliffhanger, and author Marcus Sakey sets us up for big things in book three. I can’t wait to see how things will resolve after that climactic ending.(less)