Sunday, October 4, 2015

REVIEW: UNSTABLE PROTOTYPES (Big Sigma Book 2)

INTRODUCTION
Sequels can be risky business no matter the medium. Sequels are inspired by various motivations. The FAST AND FURIOUS franchise continues to live on because people consistently pay to see the ludicrous stunts and zany criminal story lines that the movies provide. The Marvel comic and movie universes are going strong because there are so many wild adventures to be had and so many characters to get to know (not to mention all the money they make from them). Then there are some concepts that are simply planned to go on for a finite amount of time like THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy which is most definitely meant to be a three-book series. Any more than that and the story might be stretched a bit thin and any less would rob readers of some crucial details and moments. In all of these cases, one thing that remains constant is that there is an unspoken expectation that the next installment in a series will be better than it's last. The fact of the matter is though, that sequels can often be a source of disappointment when they fail to outdo their predecessors or at least advance the overarching plot in a meaningful way. Joseph R. Lallo's first installment in the BIG SIGMA trilogy (entitled BYPASS GEMINI) was a delightful throwback to science fiction of old and mixed in a bit of noir for good measure. It ended on a note which was quite satisfying but also left some space for future adventures. Because  I enjoyed the first so much (and read it for the low price of free) I decided to purchase the second book in this series.

HOW I RATED IT 
4/5 My sentiments toward this story are going to be a bit of a mix here. I had a generally positive attitude toward this work the entire way through, but there were definitely some things that threw me off about it which kept this from being a full 5/5 for me. While I will obviously be getting into the details of what I mean very soon, my overall opinion of UNSTABLE PROTOTYPES is that it is neither any better or worse than BYPASS GEMINI, it's just a bit different in some ways.

CHARACTERS
Easily one of the highlights from the first book - the cast returns for another mission with some new additions to the crew. Lex, our hero from the first novel takes the lead again. Well, for the most part anyway. Whereas we pretty much exclusively followed Lex around in BYPASS GEMINI, readers will find themselves switching between different characters of the expanded main cast. I'll get to why this is in a later section, but for now it's simply worth noting that Lex is not at the center of this book's events although he is still a major player. It is also good to know that the character development that Lex underwent during the first adventure carries over and continues in this one. Lex is still Lex, but he's a far less selfish and self-destructive version of himself than he was when we first met him. He still struggles with some of his old issues, but is simply far more likable here.

Michella, who was criminally underused in the first book, finally gets a lot more time to shine. Her fame from shooting footage of the Vector Corp. incident has sent her career forward at a blinding pace. While she loves the excitement and renown, her and Lex struggle to hold onto their renewed relationship. She sort of reminded me of SMALLVILLE'S version of Lois Lane in that she's daring, determined, and has a bit of a temper. I think overall, she's a very good character, but there were definitely some parts with her that felt a little forced and it was a little odd to have her be so closely comparable to another fictional character (she's even got her own Jimmy Olsen type of sidekick).

The maniacal Karter Dee makes his return. He's largely unchanged save for his dire circumstances, but honestly, I wouldn't change a thing about him anyway. His AI companion, Ma, also makes a return, but she goes through quite a bit of change throughout the course of the quest to liberate Karter from a cult of anti-government fanatics. I won't say any more on that topic, other than that I can almost guarantee that you will love every second you have with her.

There are also four brand new individuals who are introduced slowly over time so I'm not sure how spoiler-y talking about them is. In the interest of not ruining surprises, I'll try and keep things a bit vague. First up is Commander Purcell who serves as this book's primary antagonist. While Lex and the gang are still facing off against a very large organization, having Purcell be such a featured character gave this terrorist organization a lot more weight. One of my major issues with the first book was that it had no real central villain to connect with. There were certainly some named bad guys, but Purcell offers a way more prominent face to this book's source of conflict. Along with Purcell there is a mysterious figure who is never fully revealed and will likely be featured in the third and final book in the series. Then there are two mercenary types which team up with Lex and Ma both of which are very different in that they are physically lethal, but their vibrant personalities fit right in with the existing cast.

All in all, this is one area where the book really shines.

WORLD/SETTING
As with the first book, the locations visited in UNSTABLE PROTOTYPES are varied and exotically colorful. Previously visited locations like Lex's urban home planet and Karter's high-tech lab return, though only for brief segments. There is the terrorist space station which has a feel that is distinctively reminiscent of the Death Star. Several, more inhospitable locations are explored which offer some arguably grittier sequences than anything readers might have seen in the first book. There is also a lush, affluent world where Michella spends the majority of her time due to a reporting convention which is taking place there. Combine this with some of the spacecraft interiors and there  is more than enough to make this feel like a truly epic galactic journey.

The universe itself does have a different feel to it, though. Because of all the character switching, more areas can be explored at once and the story space overall has a much bigger feel to it. In the first novel we were following Lex as he fled from the insidious Vector Corp. until his eventual head-on confrontation with them. The galaxy seems to have accepted that only a small, deviant sect of the organization was actually engaging in anything unseemly so life has mostly gone on without much disturbance. On one hand this is a little disappointing since the events of the first book were so intensely grandiose. On the other, it felt very true to life that the ebb and flow of society continued on without much consequence while individuals (mainly Lex and Michella) still feel the impacts of the event be they positive or negative. This calm really just opens the floor for a brand new crisis, one which has far more reaching consequences. This means that the stakes are even higher this time around.

PLOT/TONE
It is in this area of the work that I felt there were the most differences from the first book. BYPASS GEMINI was a tightly composed novel with noir suspense and corporate corruption. The only real respite from the high octane chase was a pit stop at Karter Dee's mad scientist lair. UNSTABLE PROTOTYPES felt dramatically more relaxed in it's pacing, which in some ways might be good, but in others it was definitely a hindrance. One key area that bugged me was toward the earlier chapters when Lallo feels the need to heavily recap information that was already provided in the first novel. I didn't need a full explanation of who Ma was or a summary of Lex and Michella's tumultuous relationship. The extent to which I as a reader was reminded of some of the basic plot points from the original felt a tad insulting in that I was not trusted to remember that information. This made for a rather slow opening, but even after the endless stream of summaries is finished, Big Sigma Book 2 still takes on a drastically different tone overall.

A lot of this likely stems from the fact that we are no longer following just one character. There are three distinct story-lines which run concurrently with one another. There's Michella's investigative work, Ma's quest to launch a rescue mission, and Karter's explosive interactions with his terrorist captors. All three threads are equally interesting, but it is still worth noting that there is far more content addressed here than what readers will probably expect after having finished Book 1. Ultimately I found that while it was a fine enough story, it was just a lot less focused than the first and it lacks a lot of the urgency that made me want to race toward the end of BYPASS GEMINI. I liked that there was more content, I loved that the stakes were a bit higher, and the expanded main cast really added a lot to the narrative, but the tale definitely meandered along at it's own pace and I felt no great hurry to rip through it's pages.

One other thing of note is that I felt as though there was a bit more tangents to be found in this installment. Sometimes it is Lallo explaining the finer points of a piece of technology, sometimes it is an deep explanation of a location followed up with a series of shorter explanations that restate what I already knew about that place. Examples of this could definitely be found in the fist story as well, but it seemed to me that this issue was far more pronounced this time around, probably because there is a wider swathe of the universe which is covered in this adventure.

FORMATTING/PRESENTATION
By and large, the book as a product itself is mostly the same as the first book in the series. The cover is stunning once again, and the editing is air tight. Scene breaks are still denoted with the single, boring "#," but I noticed far less spacing issues this time around. Most of these elements are so well done that this is barely worth mentioning, I only bring it up because of some of the minor presentation-related gripes I had with the previous installment.

CONCLUSION 
In the end, Lallo has managed to deliver another marvelous science fiction space odyssey. The larger scope and expanded main cast, while good in many ways, do slow down the pace that was set during Book 1 and will undoubtedly throw readers off if they came in expecting a similar tone and feel. Even without looking at this book in comparison to its predecessor, it still has some flaws that keep it from reaching the peak of excellence, but it provided a great deal of entertainment value all the same. It is a sequel that certainly does not outdo the original, but it also doesn't get lost in its shadow either. It is no better or worse, only different. I'm certainly interested to see what the third book in the trilogy brings since Books 1 and 2 are so different. It seems to me that there are some much larger ideas presented in this installment that are yet to be fully closed off so I anticipate that Book 3 will continue the trend of telling a story of wider breadth. If you enjoyed the first book in this series, then you should definitely continue since UNSTABLE PROTOTYPES is a very worthy follow up, albeit one that will probably not meet some of your expectations in terms of what kind of adventure you are actually getting yourself into.

UNSTABLE PROTOTYPES is available as an eBook on Amazon.

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