The fall of Berlin ended one war but began another. America in its modern form has consistently moved from one conflict into another. However, this new Cold War wouldn’t be fought in the same manner of the recent World War. Instead of marching battalions and deployed tanks, it was fought by information gathering and asset development. It was a war of spies in which the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was replaced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Overshadowing this new conflict was the threat of nuclear weapons, as evidenced by the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Into this turbulent time, Michael J. Martinez, author of the Daedalus Series, sets his new novel. MJ-12: Inception introduces Variants into the struggle for the modern world.
Variants are essentially superheroes, but these aren’t the spandex clad, Hall of Justice types. No, these are plausible human beings who just happen to have supernatural abilities. MJ-12: Inception is an origin story, which follows the classic structure of rounding up the heroes, training them, drama, and, finally, coalescing. However, this book isn’t about a team of heroes versus super-villains; no, this story is a realistic assembly of a small special operations unit. Through this one unit, the reader learns that the nuclear destruction in Japan changed the world in ways that the general population never gets to know.
TL;DR: Highly recommended for fans of Cold War era spy novels and superheroes.
From the publisher:
A team of superhuman covert operatives emerges from the ashes of World War II in a Cold War-era paranormal espionage thriller from acclaimed genre-bender Michael J. Martinez.
It is a new world, stunned by the horrors that linger in the aftermath of total war. The United States and Soviet Union are squaring off in a different kind of conflict, one that’s fought in the shadows, where there are whispers of strange and mysterious developments. . .
Normal people across the United States have inexplicably gained paranormal abilities. A factory worker can heal the sick and injured. A schoolteacher bends emotions to her will. A car salesman alters matter with a simple touch. A former soldier speaks to the dying and gains their memories as they pass on.
They are the Variants, controlled by a secret government program called MAJESTIC-12 to open a new front in the Cold War.
From the deserts of Nevada to the palaces of Istanbul, the halls of power in Washington to the dark, oppressive streets of Prague, the Variants are thrown into a deadly game of shifting alliances. Amidst the seedy underbelly of nations, these once-ordinary Americans dropped in extraordinary circumstances will struggle to come to terms with their abilities as they fight to carve out a place for themselves in a world that may ultimately turn against them.
And as the MAJESTIC-12 program will soon discover, there are others out there like them, some with far more malevolent goals. . .
Superhero novels have to walk a very careful line. If the abilities are too powerful, then the stakes become essentially meaningless. On the other hand, if the abilities are weak, what’s the point of having them? Straying too far from that line reduces the realism. Mr. Martinez balances the superpowers effectively here. The main characters have special abilities, but instead of being defined by their abilities, the cast are spies who have unique tools that help their spy craft. This gives the novel a realistic feel, as if the consequences are higher than bad guys ending up in a jail cell.
MJ-12: Inception focuses on characters that are pressed into service for the United States of America. The main characters are what drive the novel. Each one of them is a believable individual whose life is not improved by this change. This change comes at a cost in which the positive aspect is balanced by a negative. But the toll doesn’t end there. Two of them have psychiatric damage directly related to their abilities, and this added humanity to character. How could collateral damage not affect someone?
Maggie and Danny are the best characters in the novel. Maggie starts the story as an ex-teacher, full of guilt. As the story continues, she, of course, changes, but I’m not sure for the better. By the end of the novel, Maggie’s in a good place, but is she better? Hopefully that question will be explored in the next installment. Danny is the leader of the group, and the reader gets to see how he balances the differing personalities of the squad with his own responsibilities. Throughout the novel, Danny felt squeezed between duty to his country and concern for his teams. Though, the reader only gets to see one field squad, we also watch Danny as he leads a research group and handles superior officers. This man has a thankless job, but he never fails to lead.
Frank and Cal were interesting members of the squad. While they were fleshed out and believable, I didn’t connect with them as much as Maggie and Danny. Frank, a vet, and Cal, a factory worker, are the moral centers of the group. Cal’s religious devotion guides him through the novel, and this gives Mr. Martinez plenty of opportunities for tension. For a devout man, what lines that might be necessary for a spy will Cal not cross? Frank’s morality is secular, centered on getting everyone home alive. Based on his experience in the military, he falls into the leadership role for the squad. Darkness exists in Frank, and I hope in future installments we get to see him dealing with the wounds from WWII that he still carries.
Ellis is a problematic character. He’s a Southerner, who contains the era appropriate racist/sexist outlook. But he’s not a villain. Ellis’s just a man who owes money and wants to see his family. I didn’t like him, but I didn’t hate him either. His actions were appropriately rooted in character, not to fulfill some stereotype.
The book opens with a strong sense of place in Berlin at the end of World War II. It reminded me of the scenery in the movie Bridge of Spies. Like any good spy tale, MJ-12: Inception involves travel. The story stays in the continental US and Europe, but there is a fun trip to Turkey as well. The novel also features an innovative origin for a certain special location within these United States. This made me laugh quite a bit.
With the abundance of superhero stories available – especially with the successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s tough to do an origin story correctly. While Mr. Martinez writes the finding and cohesion parts of the narrative very well, the training portion went a little long for me. I was ready for them to get into their first mission sooner.
The twists were all logical but a bit predictable. I go back and forth about whether this is a criticism or not. All the actions are rooted in character and are, therefore, logically discernable through the character’s actions. But there wasn’t much of a surprise with the twists. This doesn’t mean that the stakes aren’t high. They are. The world and the characters are irrevocably changed by the end of the novel. How will this affect them going forward?
MJ-12: Inception is an excellent spy novel that happens to star individuals with powers. It’s driven by complex characters in an evocative setting. A disparate team is brought together to serve their country, unaware of the larger mysteries that surround them. This opening to a new series is recommended.