Midnight Ink, 2018, 421 pages
Sarah Price wants a career in politics. But she has a secret past that won't stay past, threatening her job on a San Diego congressman's reelection campaign.
Casey Cheng wants a story. An ambitious local television reporter, Casey needs to get her career back on track after being seriously injured in a mass shooting. When she investigates the man who nearly killed her, she finds a connection to a group of online harassers called #TrueMen - and realizes her shooter may not be the only killer they have inspired.
Casey's investigation and Sarah's secret put them both in the crosshairs of a hate group that targets anyone they've deemed to be against their cause, including Sarah's boss, the congressman. Now Sarah and Casey have a choice to make - do they hide? Or do they fight back?
I'm a fan of Lisa Brackmann, but this book, which is very Current Year, wasn't my favorite. Black Swan Rising is a political thriller focused on a Congressional race in San Diego (Brackmann's home town), but the election is really just the driver to push the plot. The two candidates are fairly generic assemblies of political cliches: Matt Cason is the Democrat, a moderate with all the usual mainstream Democratic positions. He's an Iraqi war vet, he's got some anger management issues, and he's fidelity-challenged: his marriage to a jealous political wife is a bit Clintonesque. His Republican opponent, Lisa Tegan, is likewise pretty generic, spouting conservative talking points with the main wedge issue being immigration. There's also a leftist primary opponent trying to peel off some of his votes, but that's mostly irrelevant to the plot, and just lets the author drop a Bernie/Nader "spoiler candidate" into the story.
The election is just the draw for the characters who become snarled up in what's really a book about sexism, social media, and gun violence. The two main characters are Sarah Price, a young worker in Cason's campaign, and Casey Cheng, a local TV reporter who's tired of covering "surfing bulldogs." She's pretty and young but not getting any younger, and looking for the story that will give her her shot at serious journalism, which she gets when someone shoots her.
Both Sarah and Casey have been exposed to extreme misogyny online, Sarah in her past, which she's trying to keep hidden, and Casey after an angry loser goes on a shooting spree in which she's wounded. It soon turns out that there is a disorganized "movement" of sorts, made up of angry young men who hate women, and incidentally other minorities, but mostly women. Remarkably, the term "incel" is never actually used in the book, but Black Swan Rising is basically about a bunch of incels being stirred to violence by the "#TrueMen" movement, which turns out to have originated in a graphic novel series by an alt-right comic book artist. (The term "alt-right" is also not used in the book, but again, the references are obvious.) Brackmann, as a native San Diegan, naturally manages to work the San Diego Comicon into the story, and includes an interview with the graphic novelist who's sort of a mouthpiece for generic alt-right talking points and an amalgam expy of several real-world figures I can think of.
The abuse women are subjected to online was obviously one of the themes Brackmann wanted to write about. Although the climax of the novel goes beyond abusive tweets and revenge porn, as a wave of serious political violence mars polls nationwide, the gun control issue is actually handled with a lighter touch, which is to say, it's implicit in the events of the novel that Brackmann sees guns as a problem, but she mostly avoids getting on a soapbox about gun control, other than the obligatory references to a couple of the shooters who had a history of violence and mental illness but were still easily able to buy guns. The soapboxing is more obvious and personal in the harassment and abuse that both Sarah Price and Casey Cheng suffer throughout the novel, mostly directed at them by angry basement dwellers, but the eruption of actual violence, and death threats which become more than threats, is a clear repudiation of the "Just ignore the trolls" school of dealing with online harassment.
The problem with this book was that it's very political and very of the moment, and it's rare that an explicitly political novel doesn't cause the plot and characters to suffer a bit at the expense of the political messaging. Even when I agree with the author's politics, a soapbox novel rarely manages to be subtle, and I felt like most of the characters in this one were pretty flat. Sarah and Casey are defined more by what happens to them than by their personalities, as they are just representatives of the point the author is trying to make. Matt Cason is an uninteresting acceptable-to-the-base Democrat, basically a heterosexual Mayor Pete, and his GOP opponent and her supporters are even less interesting; Brackmann isn't very good at representing the other side's views as anything other than dogwhistles and racism.
The personal arcs for Sarah and Casey come to a reasonable conclusion, but there's no real resolution otherwise. We see a rising tide of violence, all supposedly originating in a bunch of incel boards stirred to violent action by a comic book written by an ideologue, but then the story just ends. Obviously, the fact that there is no single solution to the problem and it's not just going to be "resolved" was part of the point, but the aftermath was unsatisfying. Shit happened and people move on.
Is Black Swan Rising a cautionary tale, a political soapbox, or just a novel about two women thrust into a world of angry young men and political violence? A bit of all three, but it felt like something the author wrote because she had something to say as opposed to a story to tell. And of course there is nothing wrong with that: indeed, a novel that has nothing to say isn't much of a novel either. But the story was weaker than the message, and Brackmann's previous novels were much stronger plotwise, with twists and tension that weren't present here, and less passive characters. This wasn't a bad book, and I'd even read another book starring Casey Cheng getting into some other political issue, but Casey needs to step up her protagonist game.
Also by Lisa Brackmann: My reviews of Rock Paper Tiger, Hour of the Rat, Dragon Day, Getaway, and Go-Between.
My complete list of book reviews.