In the seething metropolis of Baltus City, car-hacker Squid is desperate for a fresh start. She dreams of a normal life and a respectable job, where retirement comes with a pension plan, not an exit wound. Determined to break free from the criminal syndicate that commands her, she agrees to one last heist. But when she rescues a cheerful amnesiac from the trunk of a stolen car, her decision to help him sends her own plans into a tailspin.
Squid and the amnesiac–soon nicknamed Grief–rapidly find themselves caught between warring criminal factions, shadowy vigilantes, and Squid’s own hopes for a better future.
As she investigates deeper into the mystery of Grief’s true identity, Squid begins to uncover a past darker than her own, setting her on a collision course with the enigmatic crime lords who rule Baltus City.
Published by D.K. Mok
This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016.
I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.
Baltus City is dominated by crime syndicates, each pushing constantly for a larger share of the city. Working for one of these syndicates is Squid, a young woman whose speciality is the stealing of cars. Squid is watched over by police officer Casey, who has given Squid a dealing – go clean by her next birthday, or be put in jail. Squid takes one last job to clear her slate with her boss, and is looking forward to moving on to her new life, even as she has no real idea of how to live without crime. Desperate to make her numbers, she steals a car about to be pushed into the harbour. When she opens the trunk, she finds a man inside, bound and unable to remember who he is or why someone was trying to kill him. When he follows her, Squid nicknames him Grief, and the two of them begin a search for Grief’s true identity, a search which will ultimately tear Baltus City apart.
There is so much to love about this book. Squid and Grief are both amazing characters in their own right, and Baltus City feels like a living, breathing place (albeit one in which it is very dangerous to live – or to own a car, if Squid is around!). There’s an almost cinematic vividness to the settings and people in the book, to the point where I could easily see this story translating to the screen.
Squid herself is an amazing protagonist. She’s utterly capable, and despite living a life dependent upon crime, she is also a deeply sympathetic character. There’s a particular scene near the end of the book that made my heart hurt for her (if I mention chocolate hazelnuts, you’ll understand which one). My only issue with her is that for me, a lot of the time she reads as a character younger than her stated years. This may have been deliberate choice on the part of Mok, or simply an effect of some of the humour in the book. Either way, it wasn’t a massive detriment, apart from the fact that it made the relationship between Squid and Grief read feel slightly different than it she reads older (and don’t take that to mean in a bad way at all, it’s just different).
And where to even start with Grief? As much as I liked Squid, I loved Grief. Mok has pulled out all of the stops with this character. His childish innocence as an amnesiac reads as utterly believable, as does how he begins to change over the course of the book as he learns about the man he was before Squid rescued him from a stolen car. The two sides of him could not have been more opposite, and yet Mok makes it all work so well. He and Squid together are two sides of the one coin in some ways, and it’s little wonder that they work so well together in this book.
The background of Baltus City is extremely vivid, and it’s fun following Squid and Grief around it, from the poorest slums to the richest apartments. All of the minor characters were brilliant, and Mok writes most of them in such a way that it really seems as if you’re getting a glimpse of only a part of their greater stories. Against this vividness, the figures of the crime lords (and I’m using lord as a gender neutral term here) running the syndicates unfortunately sometimes feel sketched in. I feel like this is something that almost couldn’t have been avoided without making the book twice as long, however, and it isn’t something that detracted from my enjoyment of the book. After all, this story is about Squid and Grief, not about the crime lords.
It is worth noting that this book contains a variety of female characters in various positions of power (and lack of power), and that there is a very welcome lack of sexual violence in the story. There are other kinds of violence, but none of them are dwelt upon in too much detail.
This is Mok’s third novel, continuing a diverse career. Both of her previous novels have been great, but I feel that with Squid’s Grief she’s really hitting her stride and reaching a new level as a writer of complex, character-driven work. If you’ve never read her work before, and are a fan of cyberpunk flavoured settings with a good dash of humanity and humour, this is a great place to start.