26 June 2012

Review: A Slow Cold Death by Susy Gage

Lori Barrow was a Wunderkind, the youngest person ever to enrol in America's most prestigious science university, the Superior Technological Institute of Los Angeles, CA. Now, twenty years later, she's a lonely, socially awkward Luddite whose career is all over the map because she refuses to grow up. She knows that her alma mater has brought her back as a professor not because of any great achievements, but because they hope her wide range of skills will resuscitate the dying physics department.
She learns very quickly that the "dying" is all too literal. Mysterious deaths and accidents have plagued the department for at least two years, linked somehow to experiments at the South Pole and the happenings at the rocket lab.
Afraid of making too many waves too early, Lori says nothing... until the department's only female graduate student is found frozen to death in the cold room. An angry technician with a misogynist streak is arrested, and everyone but Lori breathes a sigh of relief. She is convinced that the murder was not personal but political, a warning to her and her colleagues to stay away from the rocket lab. At stake is a six hundred million dollar grant that has the power to return the department to its former glory.


When I stumbled across an ARC of Susy Gage’s first novel, A Slow Cold Death, I was instantly interested. The premise is interesting and the book ticked all the right boxes for me – thriller, science in fiction, high body count and written by an actual scientist (the best science stories are always written by scientists).

The prologue is typical thriller and is instantly gripping; I always love a novel when there is a death within the first few pages. However after that the novel goes downhill fast as the pace slows to a crawl and a large cast of characters are introduced. Apart from an accident in a BSL3 lab there is little to move the story along and so the first chapters are dull and lack the thread of suspense a thriller should have. This continues for the first half of the book – there is no real suspense or sense of danger. At times the main character, Lori or her colleague Lou, refer to someone being out to get them, but this has the effect of taking away the suspense, rather than increasing it. The lack of danger may originate from the fact the characters don’t really react to the threat for much of the first quarter to half of the book. Past the half-way mark the threat level and suspense does increase but even at it’s peak had little effect on me as a reader and I believe the impact would have been greater if it was more subtly done from the start and given a chance to build up – having the characters aware of the threat so early means it has lost all meaning by the end.

The writing style is good for the most part although there is a lot of jumping around in the first part of the novel, which makes it difficult for the reader to follow what is going on. This is not helped by having a large cast of characters, some with nick-names that are only used on and off. I found myself re-reading sections on numerous occasions; a particularly memorable example was when the narrative suddenly referred to a plot as if the reader already knew about it, and I had to check I hadn’t missed anything. As you go through the book there is less jumping around, making the plot easier to follow, and by the half-way mark I was clear on what was happening and the book became much more enjoyable to read. However had I not been reading to review I would have put the book down before I reach that point.

After the half-way point the book gets much better, a clearer plot and more suspense meant I was anxious to continue reading; this is what a thriller should be like. The fact that at this point there are several suspects results in the reader trying to piece together all the pieces and you start to connect with the characters. The ending, whilst not expected, was anti-climatic, not helped by the fact Lori Barrow takes almost a back seat towards the end of the novel. Looking back the plot makes sense, although I have a minor issue with the believability of some of the scenarios. Whilst the novel is a piece of fiction, I’m a strong believer that novels such as this should have a ring of believability and at times A Slow Cold Death lacks this, with the characters breaking into labs and stealing samples with impunity. This meant that I was not as immersed as I could have been in the story, which was a shame.

I was reading the ARC as a .pdf on a Kindle, and as such, whilst there were formatting errors, I am overlooking those in my rating. From looking at the publisher’s website it seems that they know the e-book market and so I have no doubt that formatting will be addressed in the retail formats of the book. There were some cases of missing punctuation, especially full stops, and I would hope that this would be addressed before the book comes out in November.

Overall, the first quarter of the book I could happily have done without but once the story got going it was good and enjoyable to read. The characters are interesting and clearly defined, and the plot addresses, although not directly, some of the issues within the scientific community. I wouldn’t class it as a thriller, more of a cosy mystery due to the lack of suspense for much of the book. Unfortunately, whilst the premise was good and the story picked as the book progressed, the first quarter of the book, along with the lack of suspense, ruined it for me and the book didn’t live up to my expectations – although I accept that perhaps my expectations were wrong.

A Slow Cold Death will be published on November 1st 2012 and a dead tree copy is available to pre-order from Barnes & Noble for $10.11. Hopefully more outlets and an e-book format will become available nearer to release.

A note about the publisher: Whilst A Slow Cold Death disappointed me, I was intrigued by the publisher Biting Duck Press. It is a fledging press run by academics, its green, has genre focuses including science in fiction and medical thrillers, and also seems to have an understanding of how the publishing world is changing in light of the rise in e-books. I wish them the best of luck and have already discovered an interesting book that I’ll be on the lookout for in 2013. The world needs more publishers for science in fiction novels!

[An ARC was provided by Bitingduck Press via Net Galley]

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