In “normal” conditions, it would be hard to avoid a title as striking as Ion Curtain. It is profoundly simple, yet it carries decades of baggage. Such a mild change carries the possibility of re-negotiating the phrase for a new crop of science fiction readers and writers. Whether or not this was what the author intended, those are the expectations that the novel became saddled with inside my own mind. So to say that Anya Ow’s debut novel is both interesting and disappointing should be taken with a grain of salt sprinkled on the mountain I had made.
Ion Curtain follows Kalina Sokolova as the aid to one of the Russian Federation’s most talented strategists, Admiral Kasparov. She also happens to be a member of the Jinyiwei, an elite spy organization of the United Nations. Her objective is to gather information, but if push comes to shove, she has the clearance to remove Kasparov from the board entirely. But when the roguish pirate, Solitaire Yeung, scavenges an advanced Russian warship, the cracks between the two powers begin to accumulate. The problem is, neither Yeung or Sokolova understands exactly what he stole. But the U.N. is hoping to get it, while the Russians hope to get it back. In the shadows however, a third clandestine group wrestles for the power Yeung has pilfered, and Kasparov may be Sokolova’s window into who they might be.
Given the nature of the war in Ukraine, I imagine this book will have a controversial quality to it. This is especially the case because a majority of the perspectives are from within the Russian Federation. Though this was most definitely written prior to those events, I do want to give the reader a heads up.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this debut, because it has a lot to like, while also leaving me feeling wanting. Ow’s writing, while uneven at times, is incredibly compelling. She avoids large information dumps that feel out of place for the events that occur, yet manages to catch the reader up organically in the future she envisions. Her biggest strength is her dialogue, which is fun, character oriented, and lively. The terse and almost sparring tinged language of the Russian Federation officers juxtaposed against the spontaneous and flirtatious blah blah of Yeung and his pirate crew is fantastic. Sokolova’s consistent code switching was flawless, giving her a ruthless spy edge that shows her dedication to her work while alienating her from everyone she interacts with, except for Kasparov. My favorite parts of the book were their conversations, watching them try to outmaneuver each other while also forming a strange bond of mutual respect.
The plot itself is messy, but not necessarily in a bad way. Ow pulls at the various threads using different characters to slowly reveal what exactly is going on. Yeung is on the run, trying to keep two steps ahead of the Russians while also failing miserably at it. Sokolov uses her skills to infiltrate the Federation while supplying Kasparov with information he could find helpful to regain a semblance of control. And the third POV, Viktor, chases Yeung while being the only captain to have dealt with the clandestine force. Most chapters are exciting and deal with the character’s internal battles, but sometimes they feel out of place. The POV switches sometimes stuttered the momentum as I had to re-orient myself. This was unhelped by the flood of character’s Sokolov encountered, while Yeung and Viktor stayed within the same orbits. My interest in each character flitted about like a fly hoping to find a meal to rest on before being shooed off by an annoyed hand.
The most frustrating aspect of the book however, was I’m not entirely sure what was the point was or what was being explored. Both sides had their issues, their detractors and supporters. All the characters found themselves somewhat in the middle of everything, unsure of where to house their loyalties. And while I normally would welcome this crisis of identity, it didn’t feel like it was where the magnifying glass was pointed. There weren’t clear juxtapositions between the characters, while at the same time there was a lot of talk about U.N. this and Russian Federation that. Not to mention, the third party didn’t really have a pronounced presence beyond “oh shit, they could ruin everything.” Throw it all in a blender with an ending that feels like a “first book cliffhanger” with several character threads floating in the wind and you have a tonic for creating mass confusion. It felt like an idea was trying to crawl out of the book and become something, but Ow just wasn’t sure what it was yet.
It’s even more exasperating when all the pieces feel there. Ow did a great job of setting up a cold war scenario, even if it’s simple. The characters are fun to watch, and the cat and cat game between Kasparov and Sokolov was a major highlight. Despite it’s flaws I had an enjoyable experience and I recommend it if you are curious. Anya Ow is definitely someone to keep an eye on in the future and I will definitely be diving into her short fiction to experience what she has in store for readers.
Rating: Ion Curtain – 7.0/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.