The brilliants changed everything. Since 1980, 1% of the world has been born with gifts we'd only dreamed of. The ability to sense a person's most intimate secrets, or predict the stock market, or move virtually unseen. For thirty years the world has struggled with a growing divide between the exceptional...and the rest of us. Now a terrorist network led by brilliants has crippled three cities. Supermarket shelves stand empty. 911 calls go unanswered. Fanatics are burning people alive. Nick Cooper has always fought to make the world better for his children. As both a brilliant and an advisor to the president of the United States, he's against everything the terrorists represent. But as America slides toward a devastating civil war, Cooper is forced to play a game he dares not lose - because his opponents have their own vision of a better world. And to reach it, they're willing to burn this one down. From Marcus Sakey, "the master of the mindful page turner" (Gillian Flynn) and "one of our best storytellers" (Michael Connelly), Book Two of the Brilliance Saga is a relentless thrill ride that will change the way you look at your world - and the people around you.
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If you haven't read the first one, this won't make much sense. If you have, and you liked it, this book will also work for you. It has the same kinds of plot holes that most science fiction has -- particularly around the way national politics and the Presidential use of force are described -- but they're not any more problematic than most other such books. People have said the story seemed forced, but I don't agree. I think this is an excellent progression of the story and actually makes some of the more unlikely aspects of the first book make a bit more sense. If anything, this one may have been a bit more grounded. There is an assassin in this story that has a type of gift not described before and I thought it was very well considered. It's the sort of thing that definitely provides a big advantage, but is also one of the hardest to live with and both aspects were well described. The gifted in this book are less perfect than in the first, and the result is more believable.
There are things to love about this book and series. Then there are things that just don’t make any sense which are very frustrating when you are really rooting for this series to succeed.
I love what Sakey has done to build his premise. I think that his conflict built by social upheaval because of the effects a generation of genius children have on the world is itself genius. It touches on all kinds of things, adjustments to new technologies, psychological effects of estrangement due to different powers and perspectives, bigotry, the national interest, family relationships, that feeling that the normal world is just changing too fast, etc. It is a fantastic and layered premise sprinkled with his interludes that give it color and make it more real to the reader. (If there were a generation of brilliant people, wouldn’t there be a “personals” section focused on them specifically? Yes. Yes there would. Of course!) Then he has to go and screw it up with one dimensional characters and monkeywrenching the suspension of disbelief he asks of his readers.
First the characters: Most are made of wood. Professorial, wishy-washy President. Ambitious, conniving SecDef. Diabolical, megalomaniacal villain. “Protect my Family!” Hero. Other “Protect my Family!” Hero. Supportive wife. Other supportive (ex) wife. There are a few with human-like motivations, but some characters who were much better fleshed out in the first book became more one dimensional here. Daniels does yeoman-like work fleshing them out, but you can’t make substance out of nothing.
My major gripe is the laziness with which Sakey treats the contract he writes with the reader. I am all for suspension of disbelief in fiction. If the author tells me that Superman is super strong and can basically lift, well, anything, I say ok. If the author tells me then that Kryptonite is the only thing that makes him weak and it makes him weak as a kitten, I say ok. But if the same author tells me that, despite the previous statement, Superman can pick up an entire Island of Kryptonite and throw it into space because he just grits his teeth really hard simply because the author needed something really dramatic (I’m looking at you Bryan Singer), you lost me. In that case as in this one, the author breaks the promise he makes.
Nick Cooper is the greatest profiler in the world, a Brilliant who can look at people’s patterns of behavior and predict pretty much exactly what those people will do next. At the start of the first book he tracked a hacker across country to a specific bar, basically by looking at her rap sheet and her clothes closet. And I say ok. But he goes through most of this book forgetting about his fantastic gift for reading people until the end. This makes me want to scream. Cooper is supposed to be a Brilliant, but only seems to remember his gift after the author has had a chance to build the tension.
This is the problem with trying to write perspective characters who are supposed to be really, really aware. Cooper can read people’s intentions, but he never seems to use it to head off a problem; he just conveniently turns it off when the author needs to create a plot twist. If Cooper is such a brilliant profiler, why isn’t he doing it all the time to stay a step ahead of the bad guys? If you want to put a limitation on a character, you have to do it in the story, you can’t just have him forget he’s brilliant until it’s convenient.
And speaking of forgetting: Ethan Park has no idea why people might be after him or his boss until he just happens to remember halfway into the book that his lab had made the biggest scientific discovery in the last 30 years on an amazingly controversial issue? The author made the choice that it would be better for the drama if the danger was unexpected when any reasonable person would have been paranoid from page 1.
One final hang-up that has to do with poor research: Tanks can’t get “hacked.” Sure you can foul its GPS, or maybe screw with some of its electronic systems, but the breech is loaded by human hands and the tracks are driven by mechanical linkage. And before you say it, no we weren’t waiting around for some Brilliant to invent an auto-loader. That technology has been around since before tanks. We intentionally put the human element in for safety reasons. Hacking a high-tech jet’s avionics and control systems? Ok, but tanks are mechanical; you can lock the turret with a physical lever. The funny thing is, Sakey didn’t even need to do this; the physical threat from guided missiles going off course and jets crashing would have been plenty destructive.