The Burn Zone by James K. Decker (Roc, Feb. 2013)-Sam Shao had an unspeakably awful childhood, and when she was rescued by a soldier named Dragan, she thinks that there may be chance for happiness after all. Now 20, she enjoys her arrangement as a surrogate for haan infants. Her DNA has been altered to allow the surrogate bond, and taking care of these little creatures gives her a feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment that she may never have had if it hadn’t been for Dragan and his commitment as her adoptive father. One day, as she returns home her day job, Dragan, who had supposedly been out on a mission, bursts into their apartment insisting that Sam must pack, that they needed to get out quickly. Before they can leave, a group of soldiers burst in and take Dragan, nearly killing Sam in the process. One of these soldiers, the leader, in fact, is haan, and Sam immediately goes on the run, determined to find Dragan, who has been labeled as a thief and a traitor.
Sam knows the charges are false and vows to find Dragan, even if it kills her. She soon finds out that there may be a weapon of mass destruction on the way to Hangfei, and she’s only got a bit of time to thwart the terrorists’ plan, and find her guardian. Luckily, she teams up with a haan named Nix who seems to be protective of the human race, and her friend Vamp, who proves to be a more than capable ally. However, things aren’t always as they seem in this torn and tattered place, and the truth may be even more terrifying than Sam thought, and time is most certainly not on her side.
The Burn Zone is set in a future world, ravaged by overpopulation, starvation, and disease. When an alien race, called the haan, crash lands on Earth, they offer humans a chance at a better future, if they will only accommodate them. In the seething mass of humanity that’s left, people are no longer convinced that the haan are their saving grace. Eighty percent of the food supply goes to the haan, so obviously starvation is rampant, and so is cannibalism. In fact, there are groups of people whose sole source of income is rounding up the unwanteds and harvesting them for meat. However, the haan have promised the government new technology and defense from surrounding regions, so Governor Hwong feels it necessary to keep the haan happy, even to the detriment of his people. After all, the end justifies the means, right?
When I finished the Sirantha Jax series by Ann Aguirre, I hoped to find another book or series to fill the void, and The Burn Zone definitely fits the bill. When the novel starts, the clock is set to 30 hours and counts down from there, setting up a sense of driving urgency from page one. Sam (or SAM for surface to air missile, nicknamed by Dragan) is not your usual SF heroine. She’s tough, yes, but violence doesn’t come naturally to her and in her search for Dragan, she’ll have to use plenty of force to keep herself, and her friends, alive. Double crosses and constant danger are the name of the game, and the haan, although they’ve worked with humans, definitely have their own agenda, as does Governor Hwong, who may have more to do with this than Sam initially thought. This makes things quite a bit more complicated and Sam never really knows who to trust. In addition to the cinematic action that peppers this story, the author deals with some big themes, such as genocide and bigotry, making The Burn Zone a rich, complex, and fascinating read. Hangfei is a gritty, bustling, terrifying place, and the many little details about the city will make you feel like you’re right there with Sam. This one’s not for the faint of heart ,though. Sam’s flashbacks to the events leading up to her rescue are gruesome and chilling, and the violence, although never gratuitous, is frequent and blood soaked. I’ve found my favorite new SF heroine in Sam Shao, and hope to see more of her in future novels!