Squid’s Grief is D K Mok’s third novel (The Other Tree is reviewed here, The Hunt for Valamon is reviewed here). Her defining characteristic so far is that she uses the same plot in different genres, and she has an affinity for fantasy fiction that speaks with a knowing wink. She’s a very good writer, creating wholly satisfactory novels of zipping action and snappy one-liners, grounded with heart and soul, but, after the third iteration, I am now wondering why she is still writing one story.
There is nothing wrong with her plot. The downtrodden loner protagonist is paired with a high-tech specialist professional, and they accidentally fall into a high-velocity chase to locate something valuable or important about which the reader is given limited information. As the chase develops short cuts and unexpected detours, more information is disclosed to revise our first impressions of the protagonists, and when we reach the climactic confrontation between our heroes and their implacable enemies an imposing moral choice is presented. There are feints and defaults, quite a lot of blood from the person least expected, and all ends well. This is very good. I have no problem with how Mok handles this plot, but I am getting restless. She is a fine storyteller, an expert plotter, draws memorable and believable characters, and all her novels pass the Bechdel Test with top marks. But why do they have to be the same story?
The Other Tree was set in a failing university and an outback wilderness, and The Hunt for Valamon in a high fantasy world that almost reaches Piers Anthony levels of knowing punnity. Squid’s Grief is tighter and more controlled, set in a futuristic Blade Runnery noir landscape of high stakes and impossibly vengeful warring crime lords. Squid is an electronics hacker and car thief, and mistakenly rescues a man she finds tied up in the boot (sorry, US readers: trunk) of a car that was about to be shoved into the harbour. His duct-taped mouth prevents him speaking, but it becomes apparent that his total amnesia also prevents him understanding who he is. Squid reluctantly feeds him and shelters him in her ramshackle hovel. She gives him the name of Grief since he can’t remember his own, and somehow they become working partners. She finds the food in the dumpsters, and he covers her back when she’s performing impossible hot-wiring missions against time. She’s trying to pay off a debt to a minor thug who can order her about, until something odd happens and he lets her go without penalty. Grief is being recognised, and he is demonstrating skills in extreme violence and derring-do that appear to be familiar to the fraternities of crime that run this city.
On the correct side of the tracks, Officer Casey is struggling to solve cases in a rising tide of crime. No-one is helping her, except her street partner who ought to know better, but she is doggedly persevering despite routine derision because she idolises Drake the police chief, a shining beacon of probity in a darkening storm of crime. As Casey starts to make headway, she keeps running up against Squid and the mysterious Grief, in a spiralling narrative of discovery and high-tech surveillance that is thoroughly enjoyable, and a tense, tense read. Mok writes noir superbly well: Squid’s Grief is the most successful of the iterations of her plot. It reads rather like a high-speed action film script written for a vehemently visual gaming environment in which characters flicker from one pose to another, futuristic fedoras tipped against the rain. The dual narrative is shared between the struggling officer and the desperate car thief, leaping from one focus to the other. The reader is dragged along, not knowing a thing about this cyberpunk Gibsonian world of crime, but loving the ride.
Unlike her earlier novels, Squid’s Grief is self-published, but do not let that put you off. This is professional and high-quality reading, without tentacles.
D K Mok, Squid’s Grief (2016), dkmok.com, ISBN 9780994431509(paperback), and 9780994431516 (ebook)