Book Review: “Street Freaks” (by Terry Brooks)

I know I probably sound like a broken record, but any time that I hear Terry Brooks has a new book coming out I get ridiculously excited. He is, after all, the second author whose work I truly fell in love with (the first was, of course, Tolkien). And he’s just a great guy.

I have to admit, though, that I approached Street Freaks with some trepidation. I’m not, as a rule, a huge fan of YA, and I read far more fantasy than I do sci-fi. Still, since this was Terry Brooks, I knew that the story was in good hands.

Thankfully, I was proven correct.

Brooks has proven once again that he is one of the most gifted storytellers of his generation, able to turn his hand to any genre and draw a compelling story out of it. From beginning to end, Street Freaks is a pleasure, drawing is into this world where the order that we are used to has broken down, where the air in Los Angeles is deadly, and where some lives are deemed more expendable than others.

The story is told completely from the perspective of Ash Collins, a teenager who is forced to flee his comfortable life when his father is killed and sends him an urgent directive to go to the Red Zone of Los Angeles and seek shelter at the place known as Streak Freaks, where he meets a renegade group of misfits, all of whom have become something both more and less than humans. Together, they attempt to solve the mystery of Ash’s father’s death, as well as the secrets that might just bring the world as they know it crashing to the ground in ruin.

The world Brooks paints is not as dystopian as some–including, incidentally, his Genesis of Shannara series–but it comes close. The United States has fragmented, and the action takes place in part of what is now termed the United Territories. Though Brooks gives us only brief glimpses of the world outside of Los Angeles, the glimpses we get suggest that this is a world that is truly on the brink of total collapse. There are riots and armed demonstrations across the country.

Nor is Los Angeles much better. The air is almost hopelessly polluted, and there is a clear divide between humans and those who, for one reason or another, are deemed lesser-than. Most of these–young men and women who have been supplemented either with electronics or other synthetic material–we see in Street Freaks and its environs. It’s a harsh world, and it’s not for the weak.

Fortunately for him, Ash Collins is neither of these things, though he does struggle to find his way in the ruthless world of the Red Zone. Throughout the novel, Ash finds his actions directed and manipulated by those who both know more than he does and have more power in the world that he possesses. This is especially true of his uncle, a ruthless politician who has all the charm of an alligator. However, it’s bigger than that; there are corporations and governments that do things that their citizens, including Ash, don’t know of or approve. Though they are ultimately held accountable, one gets the feeling that there is still much work to be done.

In many ways, then, Street Freaks is a perfect distillation of the crisis current afflicting our culture. To what extent is any of us a true agent, truly in control of our own destiny? To what extent are we controlled by forces that are so vast and so complex that we have little to no chance of understanding them in their totality, let alone doing anything to change them or to hold them to account? The novel answers some of these questions, but others it leaves dangling, allowing us to draw our own conclusions.

The narrative of Street Freaks moves along at a fast clip, and Ash is a fairly likable protagonist (though his love for the synth Cay is a bit heavy-handed and gets irritating after a while). It’s the other characters who really stand out, however. Whether that’s Holly, whose body has been supplemented by synthetics, or T.J., who was born and bred to be a super-human warrior, these young people exist on the margins of society (Incidentally, I’m not saying that Mr. Brooks was inspired by my name to create the character, but I did meet him at a bookshop. I’m just saying).

As a result, Street Freaks also asks us to rethink how it is that we categorize some people as fully human (and thus fully worthy or respect and dignity). Brooks’ books have always had a strong social conscience–the overt environmentalism of The Heritage of Shannara quartet has always stood out to me–and that is true here as well. Street Freaks shows us how rewarding it can be when we offer a welcoming hand to those who are different, rather than either expelling them or, worse yet, exterminating them. Since it ends on a mostly high note, Street Freaks proposes that it’s not yet too late to forge a world that’s better than the world that we have found.

All in all, I really enjoyed Street Freaks. It’s always good to see Brooks stretch his wings a little and get out of the fantasy realm. While this book doesn’t have quite the same gritty gravitas as, say, Running with the Demon, it does seem to share a lot of that book’s DNA. While Brooks, to my knowledge, hasn’t said whether there will be more books following up on this one, it does leave enough threads open for that to be a possibility. I know that I, for one, would love to see more of this world, even if it doesn’t happen to be through the eyes of Ash. While we wait to see whether we’ll see more of this world, we at least have the final two versions of the Shannara to look forward.

And that’s quite a blessing, indeed.

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