Rhett Bruno’s debut novel, The Circuit: Executor Rising, creates an intriguing world in which a post-earth universe revolves around an economy of Gravitum, a dangerous but powerful element that allows us to survive low gravity over the long term. The Tribunal pretty much runs the universe while the Circuit, and its keepers, provide a neutral conduit through which people and commerce flow: “The Circuit weaves together all of humanity.” Mr. Bruno has a lot going on in his novel. Political machinations of the Ceresian Pact and other “fringe” settlements, a strange religion with Earth Whisperers who are waiting for a reborn Earth to welcome mankind back after he decimated the planet, an apparent rebel, Cassius (this time, there may be no Brutus), with his über talented android ADIM (clearly with pun intended) and an Executor, Sage, thrust in the middle of it all. And yes, there are even more subplots.
[Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of The Circuit for an honest review}
Mr. Bruno does an amazing job with the plot, keeping all of this vast universe together in a way that makes sense. His pacing in the storyline is spot on. The character side of the book is a bit more mixed for me. Sage is a delightful character who has conflicted thinking about the various sides of the intermingled conflicts, richly complex emotions she’s just learning to manage after suppressing them for her missions and is about as caring as an assassin can be. Those who make up the Tribunal and their official apparatus of Hands and Executors are one sided bad guys (with the exception of Sage). A little murkiness is thrown in where, periodically, they seem to be true believers but it’s clear they realize their actions are directed towards their own gain. The murkiness may simply be that they have given the party line so often, they’ve begun to delude themselves and start believing it.
Cassius, like Sage, has some complexity to him but ultimately fails to be a compelling protagonist for me. His main motive of revenge (say what he likes about freeing the universe from the control of the Tribune) and the, quite frankly, evil methods he is willing to employ to see that happen, make him an uncompelling figure for me. Too much anti in the anti-hero. (I’ll argue this point more, but that requires spoilers so it will be past the spoiler section, for those who have already read it.)
One of the other challenges, at least for me, was the phrasing, both in the narrative and as part of the dialog. Folks have different preferences here, but for me, too much of the writing came off artificial and stiff. A bit like someone putting on a British accent to sound formal. I think I can provide some spoiler-free examples so you can come to your own conclusions for your own tastes:
[Cassius recording for posterity] “It has been four years, but now I, Cassius Vale, am on the verge of the greatest breakthrough in human history since the discovery of the element Gravitum deep within the earth. “
[Captain of the Solar-Ark that transports goods and people along the Circuit] “The Tribune may control Earth, but we keep you and your ilk alive despite how they may feel about you!” He wheeled around, snobbishly tossing his cape over his arm before he snickered.”
This kind of posturing isn’t my cup of tea. It’s mainly Cassius who pontificates with Tribunes and Captains following close behind. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some phrasing that I think is lovely:
“The planet’s tilted discs wrapped it like crescent blades of ice and dust. Their soft pallet of blues, oranges and browns flawlessly complemented the toiling atmosphere of the gas-giant. Dancing around all of that was an archipelago of smaller bodies, one of which was the pale orange orb of Titan where she headed. Nearby was the smaller moon know as Enceladus…”
What do I see as the difference? The latter describes the movement, look and feel of the discs. It allows me to see the discs in my mind’s eye. I want to piece it together as if I’m there. I prefer you not tell me someone snobbishly throws a cape over his arm, rather describe the actions so that I sense that it was snobbish. Rather than a monologue to inform me of the greatness of what the character is doing, I prefer you to let the circumstances, snatches of dialog with others or their reaction allow me to conclude how brilliant and important the character’s work. As Anton Chekhov told us: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
What did I love about The Circuit?
- Its robust world with an incredibly rich set of challenges, politics and people.
- First rate plot with great pacing of the narrative.
What was I less fond of regarding The Circuit?
- Cassius as the protagonist willing to use any means for his goal
- Some of the phrasing, especially Cassius’s speeches and some of his dialog.
- The Tribunal and their minions were pretty narrow, one-sided characters.
Overall, I enjoyed The Circuit, it’s even likely that I’ll read the next book in the series However, for my tastes, the lack of a compelling protagonist and the mixed phrasing are enough keep what could be a great book as a good one.
****Spoiler Alert****DON’T READ BELOW THE LINE UNTIL YOU’VE READ THE BOOK
I’m OK with anti-heroes. I love Han Solo (who doesn’t) and Malcolm Reynolds (again, who doesn’t) but I don’t see either of them stooping to blowing up a mining asteroid of non-combatants or killing everyone aboard a ship who were civilian by-standers, to accomplish their goals (other than in self-defense, ala the Death Star). Those are unacceptable actions of a hero, even an anti-hero. For me, the protagonist needs to be the good guy (unless I’m purposely reading about a bad guy ala James Luceno’s Darth Plagueis. The Tribunal are clearly laid out as the bad guys but there is no good guy, with the possible exception of Page, but that story is left incomplete). Now, you might say, “Joe, you’re fussing about the Tribunal being one-sided, but here’s this nice complex character with mixed motives trying to free the galaxy.” I’m all for some mixed motives or, better yet, mixed execution on the right motives. Even failing to live up to one’s own standard can be compelling. That’s fine, but Cassius is mainly about revenge and a little about freedom and the ends do not justify the means. He needs to find another way. Because of this lack of moral standard, I do not empathize with him. For me, it’s critical that I empathize with the protagonist. Otherwise, I’m less invested in the story. For example, if Cassius were to die, I would be OK. When it appeared Gandalf died, I threw the book across the room, mentally screamed at Tolkien “How could you?!?” and took about another half hour to calm down before picking the book up again. That’s connection.
I think the quote “I may not care for people, but I love humanity. I love what we stand for; what we’ve accomplished; our limitless potential to expand and invent. I will not sit idly by as the Tribune holds us back!” summarizes nicely the areas I find challenging for The Circuit
- What does it mean to care about humanity but not people? This is the hubris of Cassius at its full. You don’t love humanity, you love how you think things should run.
- You will kill people, eviscerate planets and thrust the galaxy into chaos all in the name of not holding humanity back. Surely there is often a cost, often pain and death, to achieve freedom to pursue one’s calling. That ought to be a cost we willingly take on as the price of freedom, not one man’s dream to thrust it on us as he gets his “revenge” for his son’s death. A death, I might add, that the son came under whilst pursuing what he voluntarily wanted to do with the encouragement of the Tribune whose rescue they delayed in prevent Cassius immediate take off to rescue his son when that rescue would have endangered many other lives with little hope of success.
Read The Circuit and decide for yourselves. The world created and the story of it, by themselves, is worth the read.