by Steven James

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Publication date: Nov. 1, 2012
Category: science-themed suspense/thriller

Summary (from the publisher):

While covertly investigating a controversial neurological research program, exposé filmmaker Jevin Banks is drawn into a far-reaching conspiracy involving one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical firms. After giving up his career as an escape artist and illusionist in the wake of his wife and sons’ tragic death, Jevin is seeking not only answers about the questionable mind-to-mind communication program, but also answers to why his family suffered as they did.

Rooted in ground-breaking science and inspired by actual research, Placebo explores the far reaches of science, consciousness, and faith.

ScienceThrillers Review:

Placebo: A Jevin Banks Novel is the latest release from Steven James, bestselling author known for his Patrick Bowers series (Pawn, Rook, Knight, Bishop, Queen). Placebo appears to be the first novel of a new series featuring an intriguing protagonist: Jevin Banks, professional magician, illusionist, and escape artist. Seeing the world through his eyes–always thinking, how would I escape from that? what trick could I use there?–is fresh and entertaining, though he is burdened by guilt and hopelessness because of the loss of his family.

If had to use one word to describe this novel: quality. Steven James is a skilled writer who knows how to tell a story, use language, explore character. This puts Placebo a cut above many thrillers, giving it a bit of a–gasp–literary feel.  Placebo is not a video game adapted to book format; it’s a highly intelligent, original work that explores territory not typically found in thrillers.  The science content of this story lends itself to some profound philosophical thinking, about ourselves, our universe, religion, and love, because a central plot element involves quantum entanglement. (Want an explanation? Read the book.)

Steven James gets an A for the scenes in which his characters talk quantum. For all the potential that such dialogue might be boring or confusing, these scenes are actually driven by emotional conflict. They engage the reader both as story and as fascinating science.

In terms of pacing, Placebo is not a driving, adrenaline-packed story. The book begins with a brilliant, horrifying opening scene in which Jevin Banks’ family is killed. James uses a nice technique, putting all scenes with Jevin Banks in the first person point of view (“I”) and all other scenes in the third person. This connects the reader to Jevin in an intense, intimate way. The technique also works really well in scenes with the book’s openly sociopathic character; third person narration creates a sort of objective psychic distance for the reader that mimics the way the character sees and analyses herself in an abstract way.  This character is the best-developed of the secondary characters and James really delves into the thinking and motivation of a person who lacks empathy and a moral center. Other secondary characters also stick in the mind and will be fun to revisit in future volumes.

The plot is complex without being convoluted, involving physics-based psychic research, an anti-aging telomere drug, the U.S. President, several assassins, and of course a nasty big pharma/corporate villain. (I do grow weary of this stereotype.) Not all bits are fully explained and not all motivations felt convincing to me. Only once, though, did I feel pulled out of the story, in the climax at the end when I felt Jevin Banks made one decision no real person would.

Last word: An excellent book for fans of intelligent thriller fiction. Placebo offers an intriguing new hero, other interesting characters, fascinating science mixed with philosophy, and a plot with at least a few surprises.

4 biohazard symbols for excellent handling of quantum physics and an assortment of other science-y topics.

Key words: telomerase; Hatch-Waxman Act; homeschool; quantum entanglement

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

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