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Review: Payback, by Michael Botur

One thing I’d like to do with my blog is offer book reviews. Since my writing focus is epic fantasy, I will primarily focus on reviews of fantasy novels, but I’m an eclectic reader who appreciates other genres, and I know that many fantasy readers also like science fiction and horror. As such, I will sometimes review books in those genres. Today’s review is labeled a YA Dystopian, but I don’t think it qualifies as a YA book, so I’d call it dystopian sci-fi. Please feel free to let me know what you think! 

I thought Payback was a solid book, but not amazing. There were some parts of the story and some aspects of the writing that I really enjoyed, but there were other parts that I found annoying or distracting, reducing my enjoyment. Overall, I went with three stars as this was a middle-of-the-road reading experience for me. Others might enjoy it more (and the Goodreads reviews already posted show that others have). 

The story takes place in a dystopian world where AI has largely taken over, and humanity is increasingly falling prey to despair, with many people turning their back on the world and choosing a virtual life in The Cloud (run by, of course, the aforementioned AI). The main character, Eden Shepherd, is newly released from a three-year prison sentence, and she is trying to make her way in this dark world, protecting and providing for her young daughter. I thought this was a strong premise with which to start the story. 

The writing is clean, and the story moves quickly. The author does a good job of presenting a dystopian setting, liberally sprinkled with references to brands and events of the early 2020’s to give it a strong sense of familiarity. The author also does a good job of explaining the events of the first book sufficiently for a reader who hasn’t read that book (I am one such) to understand the relationships in this book that impact the story, without belaboring that backstory. 

The main character’s motivations are simple and relatable: she wants to protect her young daughter, and she wants to find her father (who apparently had some role in the ascendancy of the AI). That makes her easy to understand.

Most of the story takes place with the main character trapped in a dome of force, in a portion of a city that’s been blasted by an EMP (and is thus mostly free of the AI’s drones and other forces). She’s caught between two groups that are also trapped in the same dome, and a large part of the story focuses on how she navigates that situation and deals with the various personalities while trying to achieve her goals. There’s a lot of action, which I enjoy. There’s a high gore quotient and body count, so let the squeamish beware. I did appreciate the conceit of Eden being trapped in this dome for the bulk of the book, focused on the threats to her and her daughter’s survival, unaware of the decline of the world outside the dome until late in the book.

Overall there’s a lot to like in this book. But, the book also had a number of stylistic and execution issues that prevented me from enjoying it more. 

The character of Eden is always yelling. SO MANY CAPITAL LETTERS!  Her character is consistent but not very subtle, and the constant yelling got to me. Yelling is like spice: a little goes a long way.

Passage of time in the story was hard to get a handle on, despite the timestamps at the start of each chapter, and sometimes the text of the chapter contradicted the timestamps. Variable amounts of time passed with each, which is okay, but I often found myself scrambling to get a handle on time at the start of the chapters. Honestly, this probably would have been easier without the timestamps on the chapter headers. Maybe the author wanted a sense of a countdown, but with a timespan of a year and such variable passage of time from chapter to chapter, the countdown aspect is not very effective. 

Some things presented in the book were inaccurate, and so easily proven so that it weakened my trust in the author. It took me all of one minute, for example, to look up how long the International Space Station can operate without human stewardship and find out that it’s much longer than is used in the book.

An important character dies by falling into the force field, and I found it strange that the body continued to exist – recognizably – stuck in the force field for weeks. That said, this was also the basis for how the characters eventually find a very gruesome way out of the force field. 

There is a major twist late in the book, and it needed more setup, IMO. There were a couple of details that were undoubtedly meant to hint at the twist, but when it was revealed I had a genuine “WTF?” moment that threw me out of the story. Kudos to the author for the twist evoking such a strong reaction, I guess. I won’t go into more details, to avoid spoilers.

Lastly, the main character spends most of the book being deeply mistrustful of most people, and then near the very end has a moment of misguided trust that I found completely unbelievable, given what she has gone through up to that moment. In a story that has so many “deepfakes” and doppelgangers – several of which nearly kill Eden – I expected her to be more suspicious when a familiar face shows up unexpectedly. 

These things may not reduce the enjoyment of all readers as much as they did mine. To each their own.

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