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I try to never mention an author by name when I review something, just in case a piece is negative or critical, lest the creator think it’s a personal or mean-spirited attack on them – especially if I end up pooh-poohing several of their pieces in a row. I do need to mention, though, that I really like Russell Zimmerman’s work. Enough that he’s won awards from us here at Diehard GameFAN for his work on pieces like Elven Blood and the Shadowrun Returns Anthology (along with all the other contributors in that collection). I’ve even contributed money to his crowdfunding efforts for his own FATE based game, Strays. Of course, I’m sure he’ll be the first to tell you that I’ve probably taken a steaming slagpile on some of his stuff as well, but it’s all part of being a critic. I simply bring this up because what you’re about to read is a very positive review, and it’s worth including a preamble that I enjoy Zimmerman’s writing and my support of his Kickstarter, just in case someone thinks there is a bit of bias in this piece. There’s not, but I’m upfront whenever I review someone I’ve donated money to because hey, journalistic integrity. Now, let’s review this novel.
Shaken is not only the latest Shadowrun novel to come out from Catalyst Game Labs, but it’s also the latest piece featuring burned out mage slash ex-Lone Star officer turned paranormal investigator Jimmy Kincaid. As you read through this book, there are numerous references to Zimmerman’s other works, including the aforementioned Elven Blood, but also a lot of other Shadowrun pieces, ranging from Storm Front to The Land of Promise. Most of all though, the book is a direct follow-up to the novella Neat. While you don’t need to read Neat, or any of the other referenced pieces in this novel, it does help to have read them to fully appreciate the book and the characters it contains. I will admit that the book probably loses something if you don’t get all these references, but it’s not like SOME Shadowrun manuals/sourcebooks that not only reference a dozen other expensive tabletop gaming releases, but actively assume you have read and memorized them. So again, you can still enjoy Shaken: No Job Too Small if you haven’t read any other Shadowrun releases. It will still be a good read too, but you aren’t getting the full experience. So you might want to go buy Neat first. It’s short, it’s good and it’s only $2.99. Although CGL would be smart to bundle in a digital copy of Neat with purchases of Shaken for only ninety-nine cents. They’d make a little extra money and move some more copies. Anyway, for those of you who are big Shadowrun fans, expect a lot of famous to somewhat familiar faces to pop up in this novel, in addition to a few less familiar faces.
The first three chapters of Shaken feel VERY different from the rest of the novel. In fact, they read like three stand-alone short stories rather than part of a novel. As such, part of me was expecting this to be a collection of short stories, until I hit Chapter Four and the real story began rolling. So expect a little turbulence at the beginning of the book as the flow changes, not quite abruptly, but enough that you’ll wonder what just happened. The first three chapters aren’t bad. It’s just a different flow and style of storytelling from the rest of the book. It’s more a setup for who Kincaid is, how he thinks, and the way he operates. While these three chapters do feel like they could be short stories in their own right, they do connect back to the larger picture. You’ll just have to be much farther along in the book for those events to circle back around and fold into the overall narrative.
So who is Jimmy Kincaid? In many ways, I view him as a John Constantine analogue for Shadowrun. They look and dress similar, although Kincaid has pointed ears due to being an elf. They both smoke. They’re both quite good as spell-slinging, although Kincaid’s best days are over at the time Shaken occurs. They’re both filled with self-loathing and self-pity, and do paranormal detective work. However, both have a heart of gold and are immensely loyal to their friends, even though they sometimes refuse to admit they actually have any. If you’ve ever read the issue of Hellblazer where Constantine’s friends throw him a birthday party (and he throws up on Phantom Stranger), it reminded me a LOT of a scene in Shaken where the generally morose Kincaid realizes he has a lot of people who like and respect him. Kincaid is NOT a carbon copy of Constantine, though. After all, Kincaid is an ex-cop, has had his magic mostly ripped out of his soul, is much better in a physical fight and is only half the jackass Constantine is. One is British and the other is Pac NW Elven (but not Tir). However, the two are similar enough than if you like Constantine’s movie, TV show or comics, you’ll probably really like Kincaid and he’ll be a great gateway into the Sixth World for you. It also means that I’d read and recommend Zimmerman doing a run on Hellblazer once James Tynion IV finishes his current run on the comic.
The plot of Shaken: No Job Too Small is a bit meandering. It’s not one straight shot from beginning to end like a lot of gaming novels. Instead, Shaken is more like a river. It has a definite beginning and an end point, and when you’re done, the curves, forks and fjords make a lot of sense, but as you read through it, you might be wonder why there is an abrupt change in the story. As mentioned earlier, this is most obvious with those first three chapters, but the book has several about faces where the core focus shifts from one thing to something very different. This is not a bad thing, far from it. This is more a warning that you’re in for a roller coaster of a ride, and as you’re reading, you’ll wonder if a plot point in a much earlier chapter is ever going to be touched on again and then… bam it’ll be back twenty or thirty chapters LATER. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Shaken reads far less like the usual linear two-dimensional licensed fiction that comes from gaming companies (oh god the wretchedness that is Arkham Horror fiction) and far more like a William Gibson novel for those of you who like your cyberpunk-noir blends (and you probably do if you are reading this review!). So the book is more nuanced, and more in-depth than the vast majority of your gaming fiction. So, again, if you like say, Neruomancer and Hellblazer, you’ll like Shaken. If you like something more straightforward and to the point, Shaken‘s going off its own rails, at times, might throw you for a loop.
Shaken has Kincaid not only battling his own personal demons but those of Puyallup, Washington. Now I don’t mean literal demons. Like aliens, that sort of thing doesn’t happen in Shadowrun, but demons take many forms. In the case of Kincaid, his demons are addictions. Cheap hooch, cigarettes and protein shakes. Most of all is his addiction to Ariana, Kincaid’s ally spirit sidekick. Ariana has most of Kincaid’s magical heft since it was ripped from him by a vampire several years ago. So he’s very reliant on her for more than anything except counterspells and some light hocus pocus. At a point in the novel, Ariana goes away (not by choice) and Kincaid is forced to do things on his own for perhaps the first time since college. Although I absolutely hate it when people read things that aren’t there into a book, it was hard not to see this as a metaphor for Kincaid breaking his most powerful addiction of all – reliance on others to do the heavy lifting for him. At the tail end of the novel another ally of Kincaid more or less says this to him in tough love fashion (Skip’s not one for pleasantries), and after Ariana leaves, Kincaid does learn to trust in his remaining magical abilities and even makes a deal with the devil to get more powerful – if he accomplishes a rather daunting goal put forward by a spirit mentor known as Adversary (again, not that Adversary, devils and demons aren’t literal in the Sixth World). In the end, the biggest loss Kincaid can suffer actually makes him stronger, and he learns to be reliant on himself, rather than a crutch – even a sweet, loveable scamp of a crutch. So there is a quasi G.I. Joe “Now I know” moral inserted into the tale – whether it was intentionally planned or just a side effect of the story as it came to life is a question I can’t answer.
The core plot of Shaken has Kincaid hired to solve the murder of his favorite college professor – a murder that the local police have ruled as suicide, even though he appears to be several pints short of blood. Along the way, Kincaid has to deal with Puyallup locals, the mob, the yakuza, the monster that destroyed him magically years ago, a veritable horde of ghouls, shadowrunners, an angry mage with a vendetta against him, his own hermetic order, and of course, the big bad behind the death of his client. That’s a lot to cover in under 300 pages, but Kincaid does it all with his usual panache and grumbling. As I said earlier, all of the above encounters are connected, but it might not seem so obvious while you are reading it for the first time. Shaken is one of those books where you connect a lot of the dots due to hindsight. It’s a very fast paced read with a lot of death and violence, so the action really never dies down.
The story isn’t all hack and slash though. Not by a long shot. Indeed the characterization of the supporting cast and crew is the highlight of the book. As much as I enjoyed Kincaid, there were actually a half dozen other characters I found I liked better and wanted to read more about. If anything convinced me that Martin De Vries, Street Legend and Van Helsing meets Vampire Hunter D of the 2070s could easily support his own novel, it was his appearances in Shaken. I also loved the character of Gentry, who I think could support his own novel or short story as well. He’s a wacky decker who is equal parts Johnny Mundo, human that grew up in an elvish community (The Tir to be exact) and 90s bike courier. I really liked him and hoped he would end up being Kincaid’s wacky sidekick. He didn’t, but I was happy to see he came back about twenty chapters after he first appeared and play an important role in the climax of Shaken. There was Pinkerton, a black dwarf who shares a similar back story to Kincaid but without the magic and a lot of the gloom and doom angst. I think he’d be a fun character to get the spotlight at some point. Even a very minor character such as the homeless teenage dwarf Gem had potential for more to be written about, as there were story threads about that character left dangling. Seriously, she only appears in one or two chapters, and yet she’s so well written, she had more personality and depth to her than some protagonists in other novels. Great writing leads to great characters. Let us just hope that some of the characters you meet in Shaken get to be the stars of their own Sixth World fiction down the road.
So there you go. I’ve tried to be spoiler free, because there are a lot of twists and turns in the novel (even if the killer of Kincaid’s client was apparent to me right away. I can’t say why, but it just kind of leapt out at me.) and I want you to be able to enjoy this book. It’s a fantastic look at Shadowrun, and even if you’re in the midst of an Editions Wars or you don’t like the mechanics of the game, you can still sit down with this novel and have a good time reading it. Like Borrowed Time, Shaken: No Job Too Small is a reminder of the glory days of Shadowrun novels that we had back in the 90s. With two terrific books that are amongst the best gaming fiction released this year, this is shaping up to be the best time to read about Shadowrun in two decades. Let us hope CGL and their writers can keep the streak alive. Go buy this.