Remember when you were a kid and you watched your favorite movie twenty times in a row?1 Remember how you gasped at sagas that you might now acknowledge aren’t as amazing as you once thought, but nonetheless have a special place in your heart?
Numb by John Otte is such a story, even if it isn’t old enough to qualify for nostalgia. It’s not perfect, not by a long shot, but it’s got a lot of heart that tugs you forward in spite of the flaws.
To summarize: Crusader is an assassin for an intergalactic government known as the Ministrix, a pseudo-Christian militant theocracy. The title comes from Crusader’s condition; namely, he feels no pain, no remorse, no pleasure. He’s the perfect tool to deal the Minixtrix’s form of divine justice. But when he’s assigned to hit a lowly ship’s engineer, one Isolda Westin, his numb existence begins to thaw, dangerously. Isolda, for her part, is a plain Jane soon caught up in the cold war between the Ministrix and its chief rival, the Praesidium. When Crusader himself is targeted by his own government, the two must work together to uncover truths with both personal and interstellar ramifications.
First, the flaws: the book dragged at times, especially in the first half. Some chapters served no other purpose than to have a character reflect on the same emotional reactions already experienced. As with many eBooks I’ve read lately, there were a few typos sprinkled in the text; none glaring, but still noticeable. I’ve read two other books by this author. While his writing is decent, there’s no finesse or sparkle, no individual style that engages on a pure word or sentence level. I saw a few of the plot twists coming a couple of chapters before their reveal, while in other places plot threads that began with ominous portent fizzled into the background.
Despite these cracks in the road, I enjoyed the ride. It’s part James Bond, part Star Wars, part something all of its own, like homemade donuts sprinkled with store brand powdered sugar. Once the plot revved up I got really attached to the characters, cheering them on. My few pangs of disappointment in their development grew from that attachment: I wanted more from them, and fortunately, the book delivered some of that depth the further I dove in.
I was genuinely surprised at how Otte avoided the more outrageous stereotypical shenanigans plaguing many such tales: while Crusader does take down multiple antagonists on more than one occasion, he’s never able to supersede real mortality. To take on more than two at a time he needs help, and he’s unable to free himself from every situation.
Crusader also presented a great case study in character, as he worked through the lies surrounding him to try to discover real truth. I appreciated that even when he, and by extension the reader, discovers his true identity and background, he didn’t stop being the same person. There was no sudden transformation or outpouring of a previously unknown sunny disposition. Otte doesn’t trivialize his character’s humanity. Instead he presents a person done great wrong to, who in turn has done great wrong, and how such a person might adjust to a confrontation of his entire life’s beliefs.
I wish the same could be said of the story’s heroine. Isolda’s scattered personality (bordering on ditzy in places) felt at odds with her background and experiences; the little depth she gained toward the end didn’t feel as earned as Crusader’s. The chapters from her viewpoint contained most of the filler I mentioned earlier. She functioned mainly as a plot point to goad on those around her. Fear not, though: Otte is quite capable of drawing well-defined, great female characters, and such women appear late in the book in brief but powerful roles.
The ideas played with in the book, particularly how different groups interpret the meaning of divine service and self defense, are challenging and well-developed. The menace of the Ministrix looms over everything but not solely due to its Evil Empire vibe. The corruption of good ideals and the danger even the best of us may face in our zeal to do right is explored as the greatest threat. Otte’s worldbuilding and scifi vision is the book’s greatest asset, and while there’s plenty of homage to his influences, he develops several nifty concepts I’d love to see explored more fully.
I’d encourage anyone interested in a fun trip to take this story out for a spin. It’s not the slickest ship in the ‘verse, but it will take you to the stars.
- This review was originally published on Goodreads and Amazon. ↩