The Broken Ones by Stephen M. Irwin
Publisher: Doubleday/August 7th, 2012
Kind thanks to Doubleday for providing a review copy
Oscar Mariani is an investigator with the “Barelies”. Let me explain: the Nine-Ten Investigation Unit was created 3 years ago (after Gray Wendesday), and it sounded enough like “nineteen” that it became the Barely Legals, shortened to the “Barelies”. Oscar continually has to endure the indignity of being part of an investigation unit that isn’t taken seriously, and also the ghost of a little boy that’s been haunting him since Gray Wednesday. Gray Wednesday left the world in shambles and in its wake, also left everyone with a ghost of their own.
Oscar and his partner Neve find the body of a young girl in the sewer system, laid open by an enormous industrial auger. The mutilation wasn’t enough to cover a symbol carved into the girl’s stomach. This case should have been passed to the Homicide unit, but Mariani decides to investigate it himself. Neve isn’t so enthusiastic, and isn’t afraid to show it. She soon puts in for a transfer, but it’s clear that she’s conflicted. As Oscar follows the clues, he begins to uncover something that can only be described as pure evil. At continuous risk of losing his job, the case will take him first to a home for disabled children, the Heights, a sparkling walled enclave where the elite dwell, and finally into an occult underground that will take him nearly beyond his emotional and physical endurance.
To say that I loved this book would be an understatement. Oscar Mariani is my favorite kind of protagonist: wounded, deeply moral, and determined to see things put right. When Gray Wednesday hit, his ghost appeared in front of him while driving on a busy street, and in trying to avoid what he thought was a real person in front of him, he swerved to avoid him, and struck a young girl. The pain that he carries with him because of this, and its aftermath, is palpable on nearly every page. The author set his story against a future Australia that is broken, dark, and bereft of hope, to nearly all except for the very wealthy. Power is spotty, government support is very limited, and struggling to get by is an understatement.
“The roads were empty of traffic, but not empty of cars: both sides were lined with vehicles, some of the festooned with faded bouquets of parking tickets. Most had smashed windows, a few were no more than burned shells, all of them had been stripped of wheels, seats, mirrors-anything that could be removed in hasted and peddled. Sump boxes were cracked open and their oil drained for use in lamps. Driving was a luxury few outside of the Heights could afford. Half the cars in the city-half the cars around the world, Oscar supposed-had been dented or crashed on Gray Wednesday. His own car had gained a dent on the front. Oscar drew down another shutter on that memory.”
Amidst the ruin, Oscar is a beacon, whether he wants to be or not. His quest (and it is a quest) to see things right is fraught with danger and figuring out who can be trusted is no small task. A complicated relationship with his adoptive, ex-cop father is a fulcrum on which he swings, and we’re given small glimpses into that relationship throughout the story. The Broken Ones is not for the faint of heart, however. There’s nothing gratuitous here, but the author absolutely does not pull punches, and there were a few times that I had to look away and catch my breath. The language he uses is just beautiful, even when describing the most gruesome scenes:
“This curtain was woven with the bones and skulls of ten thousand people. Femurs and rib bones were the weft, and humeri and ulnae the warp. Skulls were ivory sequins. This awful drapery was the source of the sick, eldritch light-and behind it was a yawning darkness more terrible than the narrow, blind confusion he’d left behind. He knew he had to go. Then the curtain rippled. The bilious light shimmered, and he heard an unmusical tinkle, the discord of a thousand untuned pianos as bone ticked against bone. Something was on the other side. Something huge. It was coming.”
There is one particular scene in The Broken Ones that absolutely terrified me. I’m talking about “watching-the-scariest-movie” muscle clenching horror. I held my breath for two whole pages. It’s been a long time since a book has had that effect on me, and frankly, it was awesome. To pigeonhole The Broken Ones into one genre would be very inaccurate. It’s a combination of supernatural thriller, police procedural, horror, and dystopian…and it works. Oh boy, does it work! Stephen M. Irwin puts his characters through the emotional and physical ringers, and doesn’t spare his reader either. I felt wrung out when I finished this novel, but in the best way, the way you feel like when you’ve finished a wonderful book, and discovered a new to you author that has just blown you away. I can’t help but hope there will be more of Oscar Mariani in future books, but if not, that’ s ok too, because The Broken Ones is a gem and stands perfectly on its own. Very, very highly recommended.