In the future, AI are everywhere – over half the human race lives online. But in the Caspian Republic, the last true human beings have made their stand; and now the repressive, one-party state is locked in perpetual cold war with the outside world.
Security Agent Nikolai South is given a seemingly mundane task; escorting a dead journalist’s widow while she visits the Caspian Republic to identify her husband’s remains. But Paulo Xirau was AI; and as Nikolai and Lily delve deeper into the circumstances surrounding Paulo’s death, South must choose between his loyalty to his country and his conscience.
First, I’d like to say thank you to Hanna at Rebellion Publishing for providing me with this wonderful ARC and to Neil Sharpson who wrote a book with so much heart and imagination.
When the Sparrow falls is a literary scifi spy thriller in the vein of Altered Carbon meets the Iron Curtain – set in a future where people can have their consciousness digitized. The Triumvirate are, George, Athena and Confucius, three Super AI who rule the world apart from Caspian, a state that rejects all the Machine would offer and places strict law and harsh judgement on anyone using said tech from within their territory; it’s a place which finds comfort in state executions, and the only real escape is a bullet through the head or a needle in the back of the neck … if you can find Yoshik.
The plot in itself is utterly absorbing and engaging – I was totally engrossed. It’s safe to say I’ve enjoyed this book a lot more than I expected and finished this is two sittings over the weekend. It leads you into its pages with breadcrumbs drenched in blood, in a history of sorrow, depression and regret in the striking voice of Nikolai South, a StaSec agent, or state security. It’s a voice that wears all the mistakes, all the sanctioned killings, all the barbarous acts as heavy necessity. Because, well, you’re either at the mercy of Caspian and willing to do their bidding, or simply you’re just … not. You’re dead. The book is a rollercoaster that starts with an execution, then the discovery of two people inside Caspian who have been found to be needled, to have been uploaded to a Sontang chip – a device that stores the human consciousness. They have escaped. They are defectors, and it is Nikolai’s job to mind the AI/clonesuit human who the state think is coming to retrieve said chips. A total of 600 dead bodies all point in the direction of one envoy. It really is a book I read with racing heart and bated breath, right up until the end. It’s exciting and sad, and so very human, despite futuristic tech in bootloads. There’s mention of: Super AI, clonesuits, drones that carry human passengers, data humans and much more. All of it rejected by Caspian, but they’re struggling to withstand embargos set upon them by the Triumvirate and are starving as the days go by.
The prose, the voice, itself is so honest it’s got the blunt, steely punch of a baton, but there’s no need for nothing else in a StaSec agent.
Nikolai is a voice that clawed at me from the very start, a voice so human and real that it begged I follow. A voice that, despite being an agent of a very merciless organisation, holds itself accountable for what he’s done where he can … especially seen in the harrowing recount of ’84. He’s a character who wears his scars openly yet can’t escape the deep hooks of depression. Not a hero, just struggling human. And that’s the fantastic thing about the character Sharpson created here, he feels so very alive and relatable. Not someone who can shirk off a lifetime of loss and killings, but someone who wakes up everyday wondering whether it’s worth it anymore, seeing the shadows of those he’s wronged.
Finally, the word ‘moving’ is the one I’ve chosen that best describes the plot arc, but mostly what it does is describe the final page. The twist is also very clever, and the implications on the character voice, or the POV it’s told from … well, you can think about that for ages once you’ve finished it and either find it chilling or intriguing. It’s both beautiful and sad, and dreadful and wondrous. By the end of the book, I loved Nikolai south as an estranged family member, for who could not, spending such a long time with one character? His story is dear to me, and I’ll think on it again and again from time to time. It’s just that kind of story. I was honestly blown away by it. It took two days out of my life, but it’ll affect my thoughts for time to come.
Whatever it is Sharpson has written with When the Sparrow Falls, it’s what I’d consider a masterpiece. A modern classic. It is my favourite read of the read by far.