August 1945: WWII is over. The atmosphere in Berlin is tense, with the surrendered Germany cowering under the thumb of the Soviets and the Allies. It is a place of ghosts and unnerving shadows. In the wake of nuclear destruction, Hiroshima, too, feels haunted. And yet both cities are hiding inexplicable secrets that will change the world: the inexplicable results of secret German technology and atomic fire have unlocked impossible abilities in seemingly random individuals around the globe, who suddenly find themselves persons of interest to the Soviets and the Americans, who would find a cadre of super-powered spies extremely useful in a burgeoning Cold War threatening to take a turn into supernatural territory. These super-powered populace is caught between their own powers, fears, and desires, and a shadowy global conflict into which they have been unwittingly, unwillingly inserted.
Michael J. Martinez’ MJ-12: Inception is a thriller that blends the best elements of Cold War-era spy stories, supernatural fantasy, and splashy pulp comics. Spy thrillers are a perennial favorite of readers and moviegoers alike: the shadowy moves of espionage organizations, seeking advantage beneath the surface, these amalgams of action, adventure, and intrigue are a fruitful orchard for any writer. Add super-powered individuals into the mix, and you’ve got the making for an enjoyable new series with addictive appeal.
These newly gifted “Variants,” ordinary folks who find themselves infused with powers they don’t fully understand (and may not even want), are drawn into an international conflict occurring far from the world stage: a schoolteacher who can emotionally manipulate people around her. A mechanic who can transmute materials. A factory worker who can, at cost to his own health, heal others. A discharged veteran who can absorb the knowledge of a dying person. It’s an inspired high-concept pitch, and Martinez takes full advantage, building a shadowy world just to the left of the one we know, and populating it with characters who are messy, complicated, and compelling.
These super-spies find themselves part of, and struggling against, the mores, beliefs, and standards of the time. In a forward, Martinez makes plain the sexism, racism, and cultural beliefs of the era are presented in keeping with the times. I can see why he felt a word of caution was warranted—one of the protagonists is virulently racist against African-Americans, including one of his fellow Variants), and it helps to remember that the characters are firmly locked in a 1940s mindset. But despite (and in some cases, because of) their flaws, Martinez takes care to make even these reprehensible perspectives ring true.
As compelling as the characters are, the book truly exists as a vehicle for high-octane action, and it delivers (which will be no surprise to readers of Martinez’ inventive sci-fantasy adventure trilogy, beginning with The Daedalus Incident) . If you ever wondered what Cold War-era spy feats would be like with the addition of paranormal powers, this is the book you’ve been waiting for. From training montages in a certain infamous section of Nevada desert, to field missions in Europe, the book is at its most excellent when the characters’ abilities are put to the test. If the requisite gadgetry is not quite as advanced as even the early Bond movies, the author certainly knows his genre, and doesn’t fail to deliver satisfying espionage action. In the field, the team is given access to a number of items that would cause Q’s eyes to bug out in envy. Our heroes are hardly Double-0 agents, however—Martinez never lets us forget that these are civilians, however unusually skilled, and they quickly find themselves in above their heads, particularly during an an extended chase scene behind the Iron Curtain, as the team’s powers, fears, and conflicting agendas come to a head amid a rapidly deteriorating situation. It’s the payoff the novel has been building toward, and the sequence delivers on every level: character, literary, and cinematic. Think the X-men meets James Bond, with the noir flair of The Good German and you’ll have a good diea of whether this is the book for you.
The ending solves a couple of mysteries and opens several more. As a setup for a series, it works at an excellent pitch. I can’t wait to see if and how these characters will change the course of history as we know it. Is this a secret history or an alternate one? Only time, and more books, will tell. I look forward to finding out.