“Hexcommunicated” comes from Rafael Chandler, a video game designer who also writes tabletop role-playing games. Being a long-time fan of Rafael’s “Dread: The First Book of Pandemonium”, I was very curious about his debut novel: an urban fantasy thriller set in a world of cybernetic werewolves, undead spies, and Lovecraftian terrorists. It sounded like a great read for people who are into the Cthulhu Mythos, cyberpunk and espionage, me being one of them. So I gave it a shot.
Let’s start with the setting – the USA in an alternative future. In response to a Lovecraftian terrorist attack on Providence the government creates Hex Division, a counterterrorism agency deploying teams of humans augmented into monsters in order to evoke shock and awe in America’s enemies. Those monsters are patterned on the traditional creatures of the night with some cool twists, like for example a Fearwolf’s ability to hit people with nightmarish hallucinations. Of course it turns out that there are more players in the game and more types of augmented agents than anyone suspected – hence the espionage angle.
An interesting mix and a successful one. The technobabble sounds convincing, the enhancements are just the right degree of awesome, and the way the intelligence operates allows for suspension of disbelief. Not to mention that it would make the perfect setting for a role-playing game.
As we talk about a thriller set in the world of espionage, it does not come as a surprise that the plot revolves around multi-layered schemes of different agencies trying to upper-hand one another. The author did not cut corners here – the plot seems to be quite meticulously thought-out, with the right number of twists and red herrings. Still, I do have one reservation – even though the protagonists often find themselves in extreme danger, I felt like nothing really bad could happen to them, which took away a little from the excitement. Nevertheless, judging by the cover I had expected mainly straightforward gun-blazing action so I truly enjoyed a real plot that actually made me think. Plus, in many books about investigations one gets the impression that clues are artificially planted by the author to make their characters move forward. While reading “Hexcommunicated” I only had the slightest tingling of this feeling once or twice. And I wasn’t disappointed with the action scenes – vivid and well-presented.
A good story needs intriguing characters. I would say that so far Agent Tepes is an ok character. It was definitely a good idea to give him a Romanian background and dwell a bit on his past. Also, the reminiscences about him being captured by terrorists add an interesting touch and the moments he defies authorities or his opponents ring true to the character. I buy his loyalty toward friends and his protectiveness toward civilians. I don’t buy his sudden love for Else and it’s a problem as it plays an important part in the story. The reason is the fact that Else is the least interesting female character here. Doing something about it should be job one in the second book of the series.
Except for Else, I liked all the supporting characters. Bettie Zheng, Tepes’ partner, rocks as a badass but faithful wild thing, who displays some mean humor (more of that please!). There are a few characters capable of changing alliances and with a lot of potential for being imbued with even more depth and ambiguity, which I hope the author will do in the second book.
Despite a few reservations, I enjoyed this novel a lot. It smartly uses horror props in the espionage thriller genre and gives me high hopes for Book 2. Who did Tepes meet in Iran? What exactly happened in Providence? How does Al-Hazred operate? What are Svieta’s true colors? After a solid start, I am ready for a darker ride.