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Counterfeit Kings
Adam Connell
Phobos Books, 391 pages

Counterfeit Kings
Adam Connell
A fan of science fiction since the time he could read, Adam Connell graduated from New York University with a degree in English. After a seven-year career in finance, he was laid off with two hundred other employees. His subsequent job search led him to interview with Sandra Schulbert of Phobos Books. Knowing he was an avid writer, Ms. Schulbert invited him to bring along his two best manuscripts; instead of a position with the company, he received two book contracts. Counterfeit Kings is his first novel.

Adam Connell Website
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Official Counterfeit Kings website

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A review by Victoria Strauss

Impressive debut SF from new author Adam Connell.

A long time before the opening of Counterfeit Kings, a colony ship called The Priam failed to reach its deep space destination and turned back toward earth. Near the Jovian moon Io, war erupted between the colonists, sparking a disaster that crippled the ship but also, serendipitously, led to the discovery of a new energy source, born of the interaction between Io's corrosive atmosphere and the ship's own technology. Inventing a way to harness this energy source, the ship's chief engineer, John Kingston, parlayed it into a lucrative monopoly that quickly all but replaced earth's fossil fuel industry. With his domineering personality and genius for order, Kingston soon became known simply as "the king", and his ten orbiting energy mines, their complex technology fully known only to him, became his kingdom.

The king hasn't lacked for challengers over the years, and as a defensive measure he has created a corps of Ringers, bodyguards surgically altered to look exactly like him. Now a botched assassination attempt has killed the king's son and wounded the king, and, in its wake, the king and his Ringers have disappeared. According to law, after twenty days of absence the king must be declared dead; his kingdom will then be up for grabs. There's no shortage of claimants: the queen, who wants to hold things together so her remaining son can inherit; Rouen, who led a previous war to topple the king and ever since has been looking for another chance; the Bastards, the king's horde of illegitimate children, who covet their father's mines even more than they crave his acknowledgment.

In desperation, the queen hires the king's former bodyguards to search for him: Horrocks, a one-time war hero and drug mule who has surmounted his violent past to gain a precarious security as a mine-owner himself, and his wife Sari, a former prostitute who hates the mining life and despises the king with his pretensions of royalty. Sari, who is pregnant and fears for her unborn child, doesn't want to accept the queen's commission, but Horrocks feels a certain residual loyalty, and also realizes that a stable kingdom is his only hope of keeping his mine. But the Bastards have hired their own agent -- Horrocks's old enemy Guilfoyle (alert readers will spot a nod to Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, with its anti-hero Gully Foyle), a suicidal psychopath who quickly hatches his own treacherous plans, one of which is to revenge himself on Horrocks. As the days tick down, Horrocks and Guilfoyle are pitted against one another in an escalating cycle of violence that drives Guilfoyle even deeper into madness and unleashes in Horrocks the brutality he thought he had left behind. Meanwhile, the kingdom's rival claimants jockey murderously for position, and rising discontent among the miners threatens to tear the kingdom apart even if the king is found alive.

Counterfeit Kings is about degraded people with grimy souls, waging epic struggles for things of dubious value. Connell builds an overwhelming atmosphere of claustrophobic grunginess, broken frequently by firework bursts of sex and violence that don't stint on the graphic details. It's possible to read the book just on this level, and no doubt many people will. But there's also something much more subtle going on, such as sharp characterizations and compelling storytelling, and a unique setting built on a pair of carefully-layered dissonances: the disjunct between the feudal setup of Kingston's kingdom (complete with court and palace and issues of primogeniture) and its spacefaring context, which simultaneously emphasizes the kingdom's weirdness and points up its ridiculousness; and the contrast between the high technology of Spot Drives and colony ships, and the almost aggressively low-tech details that surround them. Characters drink club soda and eat potato chips and read paperback novels. The Moondrunk, Horrocks's and Sari's ship, is set up like a suburban home, with two floors and a cellar. Guilfoyle and his half-sister Kitsis, bickering in their ship's filthy kitchen, might be a pair of lowlifes in a trailer park fighting over beer and cigarettes. Even vast Jupiter is diminished: Sari, looking at it, compares it to a child's arts and crafts project, a glass globe filled with layers of colored sand.

Of course we never forget that all of this is taking place several centuries hence, in a time when space travel and planetary colonization have become routine. But unlike other writers of "new" space opera, who revel in the bizarreness of their scenarios, Connell does all he can to dress his down to ordinariness. It's only the reader, after all, who stands awed before an alien future -- to the characters, it's just where they live. Within the context of his highly speculative setting, Connell opens a window into that everyday, dirty, lived-in world. The result is a narrative that owns both a strangeness beyond any exotic science fictional detail, and a gritty sense of verité that transcends plausible science and nifty tech.

Connell writes in a deceptively simple, declarative style sparingly accented with startling similes. His characters are revealed mainly through dialogue and action, but also through occasional expository passages of acute insight, which render the villains no less understandable than the heroes (and sometimes make it hard to tell the difference). The well-constructed plot moves inexorably toward an annihilating climax reminiscent of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. This is not always an easy novel to read -- but it's never less than compelling. Counterfeit Kings marks the advent of a bold new talent, and I'll be looking forward to seeing where Connell goes next.

Copyright © 2004 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Burning Land, is available from HarperCollins Eos. For more information, visit her website.

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