Book Review: Synapse

by Steven James

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian sci-fi

Set at a time in the future when robots (or Artificials) have been taught to not only think for themselves, but to have emotions, and even the option of pain, there is still a lot that is unknown about how similar robots are to humans. Do they have souls? Can they believe in and worship God? Kestrel Hathaway doesn’t know, and neither does her Artificial, Jordan. Amidst their discussions of these concepts, Kestrel is pulled into a plot to put an end to the advances in AI by people known as Purists. Working with federal agent Nick Vernon, Kestrel and Jordan do their part to help prevent a deadly attack.

This book was an interesting mash-up of theology exploration and sci-fi elements. For much of the book, Kestrel is simply trying to cope with a fresh tragedy, while being slowly dragged into a deadly cat-and-mouse game between federal agents and terrorists. Jordan was probably my favorite character, as he tried to figure out what hope there was for him, especially in eternity. And there were some twists near the end that I enjoyed. But overall, the book was mostly just okay.

The very beginning of the book shows Kestrel delivering a stillborn baby (that she didn’t know was stillborn). It’s told in 2nd-person perspective, so it’s describing the events as if they happened to you. I think this is important to know for those who have gone through this or something similar. She is a pastor, and spends most of the rest of the book idly questioning her faith in God. I say idly, because it’s as if she’d forget her questions now and then, and have to remind herself she was still uncertain about if God existed, or he was actually all-powerful, or if he cared about her. She also carries some PTSD from a tragedy 9 years old, and I was surprised by the way some of that played out as well. But I suppose PTSD is not a consistent syndrome (meaning it’s not the same from person to person, and probably difficult to pin down and define). I would say that maybe the way she does respond shows her strength, but I didn’t really get that characteristic from her otherwise.

I believe Jordan’s role in the book was to parallel humanity’s question of an afterlife. How can we ever know for sure if Heaven exists, if no one who has been there can return to tell us about it? Artificials are told that there is a manufactured afterlife where their consciousnesses will go when they “die.” Jordan’s mother “died,” and he is desperate to know if she’s in the afterlife. Where this parallel falls apart, though, is that Artificials are guaranteed this afterlife by a fallible man, while humans who follow Christ are guaranteed their afterlife by an infallible God. Some of the discussions that arise between Jordan and Kestrel about afterlife and the ability to believe in and worship God are interesting though. Except for the times that Kestrel is just mean to Jordan about his inhumanness.

As for the twists near the end, they did mostly catch me off guard. But there was a weird thing that happened that got my heart pumping about a possible twist coming, but instead, it turned out not to be true. It was a huge letdown, and I can think of a few ways that some dialog could have been written to avoid this letdown. I had some questions that were left unanswered–about Jordan’s mom, about some of the Purists’ involvements and questionable actions, and some other things that came out during the climax, but are never given any kind of explanation.

I think the sci-fi plot were simply a vehicle for the theology discussed in the book, which is why the plot was fairly weak. And for me, at least, some of the theology was weak too. Kestrel’s brother, an atheist, asks her some very good questions about God, and her replies are the type I often see from the token “religious character” in TV or movies. She does go deeper than the stereotype sometimes, but I still found myself wishing for more. And very likely, this can all be chalked up to the author and me having different views on some theological aspects, which will certainly happen. I just found myself very sad about Kestrel’s brother’s view of God, and wished her responses had been more fulfilling.

One more thing that adds to my lower rating, which I almost forgot, was the way the story was told. As I mentioned above, it starts out in 2nd person (“you”), then switches to 1st person out of the blue (“I”), but is only 1st person when the perspective is on Kestrel. When it’s on a plethora of other characters, it’s 3rd person. And to make it even more confusing, when the perspective is on Jordan, it’s 3rd person and present tense, when it’s past tense the rest of the time. There’s a reason jumping POVs, tenses, and even character perspectives is meant to be kept simple, and while it’s not completely impossible to try something different…it was just confusing in this case, and made the reading disjointed.

In the end, I would recommend this book for those who are interested in the exploration of how humans approach God and the afterlife, and what it means to have a “soul,” and understand that there is some sci-fi around that. I don’t think I’d recommend this for readers of sci-fi, unless they are willing to wade through the theology.

I received a complimentary copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

Find out more about Synapse
Publication date: October 8, 2019

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If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

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