Conjoined twins Charles and Benjamin Armstrong have a vision of a utopian future—a future in which war, hunger, even minor conflict is nonexistent. They wish to see human society perfected. Which sounds pretty sweet, except that they hope to achieve it by sending brain-manipulating nanobots into the minds of the most powerful leaders on the planet, and then rewiring their brains to serve their cause. Which involves doing the same to the rest of the world. BZRK is not about to let that happen. Armed with sets of biots—microscopic bug-like creatures that can alter brains as well as the nanobots—this guerilla organization is ready to fight for the free will of the human race.
I like to picture Michael Grant’s BZRK as the summer action movie of YA books. It’s noisy and fast-paced with colorful characters and just a tiny hint of deeper substance, asking questions like “Is world peace worth the cost of free will?” A tiny, tiny hint. After all, The Matrix asked deep questions like “What is reality?” but no one watches The Matrix solely to have their intellect teased. BZRK is the same kind of entertainment.
That said, BZRK would make a ridiculously fun action movie (and, in fact, has already been optioned). Look at the very premise: The battle for humanity’s freedom is being fought, secretly, INSIDE PEOPLE’S BRAINS by MICROSCOPIC GENETICALLY ENGINEERED BUGS against ARMIES OF NANOBOTS and the uniquely skilled people who control them LIKE THEY’RE PLAYING A VIDEO GAME. On top of that, the leader of the bad guy camp is a set of twins conjoined at the face, who run a massive technology corporation disguised as a line of gift shops. The whole cast of “twitchers”—that is, the people who control the biots and nanobots—is made of characters with definite action-movie eccentricities. One, for example, is physically unable to feel pleasure due to the makeup of his brain. Another has a QR code tattooed in a snarky place that leads to a snarky video. Another rewired the brain of a hot girl so she’d be his girlfriend. Oh, there’s a normal guy, among them, too, for readers to relate to, but he is also really attractive and therefore separate from us, in his own fantastic action movie world.
Though the technology of the story is cool (and terrifying—Never again, after reading this, will you have a headache and not think “OMG THERE MIGHT BE BIOTS BATTLING IN MY BRAIN RIGHT NOW”), the characters are a mixed bag of epicness and mediocrity. What the novel has in abundant character distinctness, it absolutely lacks in character development. When I tried to recall any major transformations that happened in this book, the only one I could come up with was this: One character gets her legs blown off. Which does not a dynamic character make, at least in terms of characterization. (The scene itself is certainly a dynamic one, what with pieces of characters flying everywhere.) An attempt at development is made between Noah and Sadie, two protagonists new to BZRK who have been paired together, had biots grown from their DNA, and told to keep each other’s biots alive—to help out when the other’s brain is under attack. Their inevitable physical closeness—they’re crawling all over each other’s brain meat, after all—suggests to both that physical closeness of a more intimate, hormonal, and emotional sort is bound to occur, and both are conflicted about this idea. They’re hesitant about romance, but at the same time, have already been placed close by technological necessity. The conflict here was interesting to read about, but in this novel, it never develops beyond mere uneasiness. BZRK is going to be a series, so I imagine that their relationship will be better developed over the course of the larger story (which is what I anticipate of the character development in general). However, it was disappointing that this interaction was no better developed than any of the other character interactions. This will be a difficult hurdle for some readers to jump; if you’re looking for characters to relate to and care for, you’re probably going to find it hard to care about this book. But you’re also probably not the audience this book is aiming for, either.
Mediocre characterization aside, one of my favorite elements of the book was the incredible diversity of its cast. Nearly every globally significant culture is represented amongst the characters, good and bad. Granted, at the beginning of the novel, character introductions came so quickly and ferociously that the diversity seemed almost pandering, especially when the book reaches the American character who looks Chinese but has a Russian name. And who, you find out later, is also a gay model. So maybe it is pandering. But in a book like this, a diverse cast makes logical sense. When the threat being combated is a global one, it’s only natural that the team assembled to fight it would consist of something other than a bunch of white guys and one random other race thrown in for flavor. So kudos to Michael Grant for acknowledging that.
Ultimately, there’s little more to BZRK than cool technological action and ridiculous characters, which is fine by me. I wasn’t expecting intellectual stimulation from a book that sells itself on brain bugs. My only genuine complaint about the book, then, relates to its ending. It’s not a bad ending. In fact, it definitely satisfies on the action level. But, like many series books these days, it doesn’t conclude the story so much as suggest that there’s more to come. This makes sense for a series book, but I do miss the days when novels—even series novels—were complete self-contained units. I can’t complain too much, though, because when the BZRK Reloaded arrives at the library, I’ll be the first to check it out.