Participation Required: Three by Jay Posey

Imagine a meeting of the minds behind the Fallout franchise and The Dark Tower saga. That’s Three: a desperate western about obsession, regret and redemption set in the sandblasted wilderness of a world that’s gone to hell in a handbasket. Not that we know when, or why… just that it has.

Nor does the author spend a great deal of time establishing the central character his debut is named after. However heroic, Three, we see, is frustratingly stoic: a bounty-hunter with an unspeakable secret. But in a very real sense, his silence is his strength, while what we don’t know about the wasteland serves to make our journey through it that much more thrilling.

Some readers are likely to find this apparent lack of motivation and explanation unsatisfying, but Three isn’t actually lacking worldbuilding or character development at all; it just happens to occur in the background. Thus, there are few, if any infodumps, and the protagonist does not often monologue on his origins. Instead, we put the pieces of the puzzle together ourselves. We use our own imaginations to fill in the blanks.

Participation, then, is a prerequisite. Best to leave Three be, really, if you aren’t prepared to play the game Jay Posey makes of it. But if you are? Then allow me an industry in-joke: it may just blow you away.

Let’s back up a bit for a minute.

Three, when we meet, has come to town to cash in a bounty, but the agent who’s supposed to pay him doesn’t have enough Hard on hand to cover the outstanding amount, so he’s made to wait.

Waiting, I’m afraid, isn’t one of our man’s many strengths:

It was like this when he didn’t have a job; something to find, someone to bring in. The restlessness was setting in, the need to move. To hunt. It was the third day in the same town. Might as well have been a month. There were benefits to being a freelancer, but down time wasn’t one of them.

That’s where Cass and Wren come in: a Quint addict on the run from a special someone and her supernaturally sensitive son. Three doesn’t take much interest when he first lays eyes on the pitiable pair, but their paths just keep on crossing. Soon enough he ends up saving them from certain death—all in a day’s work, eh?—then, when he realises that they won’t last long without his help, he reluctantly accepts the mantle of temporary protector.

And so the ragtag trio take to the wasteland… where there be Weir, I fear: a hive of cyber-zombies, in short, with burning blue orbs for eyes and the uncanny ability to track their targets’ digital signatures. This is a particular problem in world where everyone (well, almost everyone) has come to rely on implants which connect them to the cloud.

By the by, there’s more to Cass and Wren than meets the eye. Though he has no control over it, the little fella has a unique ability, and between her spiralling habit and her disgruntled former employers—a band of brutal brainhackers—Cass’s past is catching up with her fast. Had Three known what a handful they’d be between them, things would have been different, undoubtedly, however “he was responsible for them now. And in a sudden flash he felt, without question, they were the mistake that would cost him his life. [But] he wasn’t sure it was a mistake at all.”

And that’s pretty much the plot. Again: not a lot, but enough—just—to get us going. Indeed, Three represents a real roller-coaster if we’re willing to play our parts. To engage with the world and the characters and the narrative in the same sort of way we may in a video game.

Tellingly, Jay Posey has been involved in that very industry since 1998. Currently, he’s a Senior Narrative Designer at Red Storm Entertainment, the creators of two Tom Clancy-branded franchises—I give you Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six—and if these series haven’t been especially progressive in terms of the tales they’ve told, they’ve made for great rides regardless. As sandboxes for incredible set-pieces and immersive gameplay experiences rather than solely stories, they’ve done the trick, I think.

This ethos—of encouraging the player to participate in the construction of each aspect of the whole—also applies to our role as readers of Three. I for one was perfectly pleased to do a little of the heavy lifting, because Posey makes discovery fun, and keeps things interesting in the interim.

Not to lean too heavily on the video game angle, but I delighted in identifying scenes from Three via that vocabulary. There are stealth sections, then, in between all the brawling; minibosses at the end of each act; collectibles and sidequests; moments that reminded me of objective-based multiplayer modes like capture and hold and more.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that Three is an unmistakable game-y debut. But this is no bad thing—and no surprise considering Jay Posey’s professional pedigree. The premise is certainly nothing new, and at the outset, the characters are rather unremarkable, but the author’s distinctive approach to storytelling superimposes a firstly fascinating and finally satisfying dimension upon what could very easily have been a bland book.

As is, it isn’t. On the contrary, I had all the fun reading Three. Honestly, all of it.

Three is available July 30th from Angry Robot.

Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.


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