Terry Brooks has an epically long history in epic fantasy. Alongside works from Katherine Kurtz and Stephen R. Donaldson, his 1977 debut The Sword of Shannara helped to bring droves of readers into the fantasy fold in the 1970s and ’80s, filling the void left when Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings. It’s not unfair to say he was one of the writers who saved epic fantasy, and since then, his name has been synonymous with a certain breed of fantasy adventure novels. Forty years of momentum is a lot to shake off, but never content, Brooks has made a big leap with his latest release: the near-future science fiction thriller Street Freaks.
If you ask Ash Collins, he’d tell you he’s the most ordinary teenager in Los Angeles, despite being the son of a wealthy, powerful bioengineer. He’s wrong. After his home is invaded by armed assailants, Ash escapes to the Red Zone, an off-limits area on the outskirts of the city. There, he’s taken in by the crew at Street Freaks, a hot rod shop keeping a whole lot of secrets under the hood. It’s soon clear Ash is embroiled at the center of a major conflict, and his chance at survival rests with the Freaks.
Though the genre is all new, a lot of this will feel familiar to Brooks fans. Thematically, it has all the scrappiness of the Shannara novels, and likewise features a young, naive protagonist whose role in the overall narrative is only slowly revealed. In grand Brooks’ style, Street Freaks is a coming-of-age story about a young man who learns what it takes to kick off the shackles of authority and take control of your life. Ash is likable, and his inexperience is a veneer painted over a good deal of anger and resentment. As he escapes from his golden handcuffs, he begins to realize the true cost of his privileged upbringing.
At Street Freaks, Ash is surrounded by a ragtag group of adolescents, including a boy with a robotic body; a synthetic woman built to be a “pleasure bot,” but who is more than she first appears; a girl with superhuman strength; and several others. Brooks has often explored the concept of found families, but this group of kids is his best attempt yet: each is individually compelling and flawed, and only when they come together do they become whole, forming an Ocean’s 11-style crew that’s simply fun to spend time with.
Through Cay, the synthetic “pleasure bot,” Brooks explores the idea of autonomy and free will, and does a decent job, despite the potential pitfalls that come with a man writing about the feelings of a female sex worker. As always, he writes with compassion and empathy, qualities I’ll always admire and appreciate in a writer. That said, a reader might do well continue on after Street Freaks with Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, which further explores similar themes, going into a level of depth Brooks’ novel sacrifices for its quick pace and adventurous structure.
Brooks has long specialized in works that could be describes as “crossover fantasy,” crossover being the middle ground between YA and adult fiction. Street Freaks definitely falls into this category for sci-fi. In many ways, it feels distinctly YA in tone, theme, and pacing—almost all of its major characters are young, and dealing with internal and external conflicts that are distinctly adolescent (though Cay’s character arc may make the book unsuitable for some younger readers). It starts with a bang, literally, and doesn’t let up—it’s not a short novel, but, helped along by a present tense narrative, the pace is breathless. Brooks constantly introduces new characters and concepts, and Ash, ignorant of the world outside his small bubble, is the perfect eyes through which to discover a future vision of a North America rent asunder by disastrous climate change, collapsing governments, and the rise of all-powerful corporations.
As this is new territory for Brooks, the book takes a little while to coalesce, despite the action-packed pace. But by a few chapters in, Brooks has control of his world and characters, and, as subplots emerge and the characters grow more complex, the qualities that have defined a career of eminently readable books shine through. Brooks has been writing Shannara for so long, it’s a treat to see him running around in a different playground.
Street Freaks is Terry Brooks like you’ve never read him before, but it also manages to strike a fine balance between the bold and the familiar. If you’ve finished Red Rising and The Darkest Minds, and are looking for more, this one will satisfy. It’s fun, progressive, relentlessly paced, and full-to-the-brim with interesting people. Unlike epic fantasy in the ’70s, science fiction doesn’t need saving exactly, but Street Freaks shows that Brooks has it, no matter the genre.