Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars is a fresh sci-fi novella with all the breezy flair of a vintage pulp western mixed with the grim shadows of classic noir. On Mars. With AI. And weird diseases (“the feve.”) And a power-hungry church leader and all sorts of lingering issues from the mess left behind on Earth. And a central character—that’s her, the private eye named Denver Moon—who is colorblind and all sorts of jaded. And, quite determined to follow cryptic clues that, she believes, will help her find her long-missing grandfather.
The chapters come rapid-fire. Those who have read Warren Hammond’s gritty sci-fi KOP series will recognize the make-it-look-easy world-building style. And those who know Josh Viola’s interest in many forms of the fantastical and creepy will know the action and blood will keep pumping. It’s never too long between knife fights and space shuttle chases. Heads, literally, roll. Paced like a comic book (yes, there is a trilogy of beautifully produced comic books, illustrated by Aaron Lovett) the story gathers weight and substance through a combination of Moon’s world-weary (planet-weary) view and the scale of the institutions she takes on. A full third of Mars’ population are members of The Church of Mars and then there’s the “hardest of the hardcore” who work for the church’s security arm, The White Crusade. Yes, we’ve made the first tentative effort at colonizing Mars but we brought all our human issues along for the ride, including the government’s ability to mislead citizens in a very big way. Darn.
No, good for story. Good for action. “The feve” is causing all sorts of mayhem. It’s a scourge. Turns out the Church of Mars believes “rigid self-control” is the only way to manage the disease.
Denver Moon is a true Martian. She’s a native. Her grandfather Ojiisan and his partner Cole Hennessey were among the colonists. They build an intricate network of tunnels that is Mars City, where the workers and immigrants live. Everywhere she goes on the gritty streets and all the sordid characters who inhabit it, Denver Moon has her sidekick. He’s artificial intelligence named Smith. He is all-knowing, funny at times, and insistent at others. The exchanges with Smith are extremely well done.
So is the atmosphere. At one point, Denver Moon is staring deep down into Mars’ crust to her home, a circular hole thirty “levs” deep. “Resembling drunken spider webs, knots of wires ran every which way across the broad space. Neon lights—hundreds of them—dangled randomly form the cables, their high-voltage buzz creating the incessant drone of a hornet’s nest. Wet laundry hung from some of the makeshift clotheslines, and the smell of grilling meat—not Prime grade, but engineered to taste enough like the real thing—and spice floated on the air. Way down at the bottom, I could just see the shrine. Donated by the Church of Mars, the rotating crystalline structure trapped and reflected the blinking neon, drenching the bottom-most levs in heavy kaleidoscopic patterns.”
The paperback of Denver Moon: The Minds of Mars comes with a prequel short story “Metamorphosis” and a snippet-prequel of Book Two. When fast action mixes with dynamic characters like Denver Moon, you’ll want to get “the feve” for this series in the early stages–so you can you were there in the early days, long before the Netflix series.