The Plague Forge by Jason M. Hough (Book Review)

Last year Jason M. Hough put out one of the best debut novels of the year, one that I even put on my “Best 2013 Debuts” list at the end of the year. The Darwin Elevator was a really fun and fast-paced action SF novel set in a post-apocalyptic future where the only remaining mass of humanity is concentrated in what used to be the (roughly) coastal city of Darwin, Australia and where humanity’s lifeline to the stars, a space elevator built by mysterious aliens, is located. He followed it up with The Exodus Towers and that too was a great read, though not as good as the predecessor. Still, they were both enough for me to love Jason’s writing and I’ve been looking for time to read the final novel ever since.

I finally got the chance to read The Plague Forge last month and the experience proved to be worth the wait for it falls squarely between the previous two novels and he gives quite a resounding conclusion to the Dire Earth Cycle trilogy. The revelations at the end are mind-boggling indeed, and though the ending is rather natural, there are also plenty of hooks for Jason to return to this setting at a later time, which I sincerely hope he does. But in the meantime, I had as much fun reading The Plague Forge as I did the other two novels, and I loved how he closed out the story of all the characters, whether I hated or loved them.

The Plague Forge

The Plague Forge is about bringing to a close all the disparate storylines that have been featured in the series so far. Camp Exodus, the Jacobites’ takeover of Darwin, the story-arcs of all the major characters, the mysteries of the Builders and the aura towers and what not. Everything come to a head in this novel, and Jason executes the final product with aplomb. He gives every character, whether hero or villain, a good send-off and none of them makes it out of the novel as well as Russell Blackfield does. Russell was very much the bad guy for the first two novels, and a character I really came to hate because of some of the things that he did. His scenes were often very… putoff-ish, and that didn’t change in The Plague Forge, but damn, Jason gave Russell a chance to be a hero of sorts, and I loved that aspect. All creatures of opportunity and the realities around them, that’s the lesson you take away from this novel.

One of the things that I was looking forward to here was how Jason would continue to incorporate the Jacobites cult into the final installment here, and how their storyline would play out on a macro scale. And I wasn’t disappointed, not really, because Jason made them an integral part of this novel, and he finally gave us some damn good kickass action against these guys, whether you talk about heroes like Sam and Prumble or the villains like the Jacobites’ nutty leader Grillo. Lots of tense action scenes here filled with a lot of bloodshed, which I suppose was coming.

If there’s one thing that made me uncomfortable with this novel, to a degree, it was that the body-count is so damn high. Some of my favourite characters got bumped off, often in some really inane crazy ways, and that made me really sad. For them, I’d always imagined that they’d go down in a grand way, but none of that here. Jason shows that sometimes really bad stuff happens and people die just like that, for convenience if nothing else. It stings of course, but that’s the beauty of Jason’s writing, because he gets you to care for all these characters so damn much and when they leave you, you are left feeling as if there’s a big gap in the story now. Amazing stuff.

The true stars are of course Skyler and Tania. They were the protagonists of the first novel, in the truest sense of the word and the novel certainly ends with their stories, in all the different myriad ways that Jason twists and turns the character arcs to serve a greater agenda. And that greater agenda is the true reason for why the Builders sent the two space elevators to Earth and why they sent another ship to do the same, except that this one sent down multiple elevators. The unveiling of the mystery, something that had nagged me at since The Darwin Elevator, was quite a cathartic experience and I loved the twist. And at the same time, Jason brings the stories of all these characters to a close, but also leaves a jumping-off point for more stories in the future, should he ever be so inclined. I’ve talked with him about it and while he’s busy on another trilogy at present, he was kind of open for this. I can only hope that he does, because the world as he presents at the end of the novel is very different to what I was expecting, and I’m very curious as to how we get to that point.

But really, all the magic is in the characters’ journeys in this novel, and the entire setting itself. Just as with his debut novel, Jason made The Plague Forge about his characters and his setting so that the overall story can move forward without any major stumbling blocks, either technically or otherwise. And the journeys, well, the journeys were as intense as anything else in the novel. Skyler, Tania, Ana, Sam, Prumble, Grillo, Pablo, Vanessa, Russell, everyone, they were just amazing in this novel, I thought. Sure, the characterisation kind of takes a hit because of the huge cast of the novel, especially once several new characters are added in, but I think that Jason did a pretty fair job with all of them.

And really, the list of things that I wish had happened a certain way is quite long. I had quite a different ending in mind, and because of that the final twist really threw me for a loop. Jason built up something really intricate with these novels and The Plague Forge is very much the cap-stone to all that hard work. And hard work it mostly definitely was, because as a reader I could see how much effort had gone into everything. Or at least, I had a fairly good idea, given the complexity of the novel and, indeed, the entire series.

Ultimately what it all comes down to is the fact that despite setting such high expectations, Jason is still capable of throwing you for a loop and surprising you. Each character is a delight here, and so is each arc.

But, it must also be said that because of the huge cast of the novel, especially one the heroes are split off into teams, the pacing takes a big hit. And even the final twist, the direct lead-up to that reads a bit weird and psychedelic even. You are unsure of what just happened and while I love the ending, truly, I also felt as if it was a sort of cop-out, because Jason ends the novel with what is an epilogue, not a straight-up concluding chapter.

Yet, I can’t deny that I had fun, or that I consider The Plague Forge to be one of the best novels I’ve read all year.

Rating: 9/10

More Jason M. Hough: The Darwin Elevator, The Exodus Towers.

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Posted on June 14, 2014, in Book Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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