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First Hand Review - The Machine,
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This review is from: The Machine (An Ethan Stone Thriller Book 1) (Kindle Edition)
You can see this is a five star review so, I guess, what I ought to do is justify giving Tom Aston's first novel the same rating I would give to the best works by Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum or Len Deighton (three authors Tom Aston bears serious comparison to). Well, here goes...
The Machine is a techno-thriller, falling between the two stools of contemporary thriller and science fiction. It is absolutely a book of the now but bears shades of a real future that we may already be living in. References to Afghanistan, the freedom and corruption of the press and the machinations of modern China sit alongside nanotechnology, robots and the eponymous machine. Given the long process from writing to publication, it's scary and impressive to think that Tom Aston must have been writing this in the weeks and months before the scandals involving Julian Assange, Rupert Murdoch and Bo Xilai hit our TV screens. Either this guy is psychic, incredibly lucky or has his finger firmly on the pulse of what's going on and what matters.
Oh, yeah, the machine of the title. I'm not going to tell you what the machine is. That would ruin one of the many twists. What I will say is that the machine is not just a MacGuffin. It's the coolest MacGuffin to appear in contemporary fiction. Tom Aston could have built an entire novel around the premise of the machine but he's got so much going on in this book that we must take what we can and be happy.
The plot is intricate but the characters and the urgency of the pace keep the reader on board at all times. Much of the focus is on Steven Semyonov, the computer billionaire who gives up his fortune to defect to China and work on building his future. Semyonov, bald and red-eyed, has the looks of a Bond villain but is far more complex an antagonist than that. The truly villainous role in the novel goes to Ekstrom, a mercenary killer who, like Chigurh from Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men, grabs the reader with the sheer callousness of his actions.
Our hero though is Ethan Stone and he is an excellent creation. Here is an ex-soldier turned peace activist (I know, sounds like a contradiction but it works!) who has all the cool resourcefulness of Lee Child's Jack Reacher but is much deeper, more... human. Ethan Stone has the relentlessness of Jason Bourne, the `blunt instrument' power of James Bond and the world-weariness of Len Deighton's Harry Palmer. He's an action hero for sure but he's an action hero for grown ups. He is flawed in the ways we are all flawed and acts as he acts because he his moral compass is intact and fully functioning.
Great though the characters are, the best thing about this book, its Unique Selling Point, is its description and portrayal of modern China where most of the action takes place. This is not the Jackie Chan/Jet Li China of kung fu, mystical orders and triad gangs. This is not the tour guide China of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Nor is it the brutal communist China of many contemporary thrillers. Tom Aston, in The Machine, has given a China that seems incredibly real, the one world superpower, that unexplored homeland of billions of human beings. Here, there is capitalism and exploitation, true, but there is also culture, beauty and variety. Tom Aston, flexing his scholarly muscles and taking us on a tour of a country he clearly knows well, has written a novel which says to us, "This is China. This is the future. Get used to it." I came away feeling educated and that's rare in an airport thriller novel.
This is the first Tom Aston novel to be published although, if I understand correctly, not the first Ethan Stone novel (chronologically speaking, I guess). The next novel is due out in the next few months. I am looking forward to it enormously.
So, have I justified the five stars?
Better than Jack Reacher. Better than Bourne and Bond rolled together. Tom Aston has written a superior techno-thriller that is one step ahead of the news headlines.