Killer Instinct: Shattered Minds by Laura Lam

Shattered Minds is Laura Lam’s second science fiction novel. It’s not a direct sequel to last year’s excellent False Hearts, although it’s set in the same continuity, and in the same region—and I think in many ways, it is a stronger, tighter book than False Hearts anyway.

Or maybe I just liked Shattered Minds’ protagonists better.

Carina wants to kill people. She has detailed violent fantasies about murder. She has a PhD in neuroprogramming, and she used to have a research job with corporate giant Sudice—until the violent fantasies emerged from her cold inability to feel much of anything not related to her intellectual work. She’s dealt with her intrusive violent thoughts by becoming a Zeal addict, working her urges out in a virtual reality landscape in order to avoid an arrest for murder, and counting the hours between trips to a Zeal parlour.

But when a former coworker dies and his last act drops a shitload of encrypted information—locked to Carina’s memories—into her brain, Carina finds herself on the run and pursued by a criminal conspiracy within Sudice spearheaded by Dr. Roz Elliot. Elliot, although Carina can’t remember it, had previously used Carina herself without Carina’s consent as a guinea pig for new and untested mind-altering technology.

Carina doesn’t want to be part of anyone’s quixotic quest for justice. But with Dr. Roz Elliot determined to hunt her down, revenge might be a different thing entirely.

Shattered Minds’ second protagonist is a young man called Dax. Dax is part of a group of hackers called the Trust that are determined to expose Sudice’s misdeeds and bring them down. Dax isn’t as good a hacker as his twin sister used to be—he trained as a medical practitioner—but his sister is in a coma thanks to Sudice’s security measures, and he and the other two members of the Trust are running out of options. It may even be that they have no other option left but to wind up operations—before Carina stumbles to their doorstep, led by the encrypted information in her brain, and promptly collapses.

Thanks to Dax’s medical skills, she recovers. The four of them agree a tentative alliance, though the Trust does not trust Carina, and Carina doesn’t really know how to deal with people, or with her increasing difficulty in staying in control of her murderous urges. They’re going to try to bring Sudice down together—but time is running out, because Sudice has been trialling a form of technology that’s effectively mind control, and soon, it may be too late.

Dax is a really engaging character. He’s a trans man, and it’s a decent portrayal of trans-ness: his experiences inform his character (like, for example, his revulsion at the idea that someone might interfere with his mind), but he is not defined solely by his trans-ness. His compassion and understanding for Carina, even when he learns how bloody and detailed her murderous fantasies are—even when he understands that she is trying really hard not to be a serial killer, and perhaps failing—and his loyalty to and fear for his sister, along with his determination, combine to make him a character that it’s nearly impossible to dislike.

Carina is a different story. Cynical, self-destructive, with difficulties relating to other people, and more than a little terrifying, she’s managing her serial killer urges as best as she can. She’s fascinating, and I find her portrayal really compelling, because her intrusive violent thoughts are portrayed by the narrative in a similar fashion to how intrusive self-harming or suicidal thoughts work—she doesn’t particularly want to want to stalk and murder strangers, but she can’t figure out how to fix her brain in order to not have these counter-productive desires.

Dax and Carina’s developing relationship, and the stresses of being pursued by a powerful corporation that’s more than willing to kill—or worse—to protect its secrets, allows Lam to examine the strain on Carina’s coping methods, and on Dax’s, making Shattered Minds a compelling examination of human nature.

It’s also a tight, tense and nail-biting science fiction thriller, informed by cyberpunk influences like Nicola Griffith’s Slow River and Melissa Scott’s Trouble and Her Friends as much as by the near-future extrapolatory science fiction tradition. It’s damn good. I recommend it, and I hope Lam writes more in this vein.

Shattered Minds is available now from Tor Books and Tor Books UK.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is published by Aqueduct Press this year. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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