Spark by John Twelve Hawks: Novel Review
Spark was written by ‘John Twelve Hawks’ (a pseudonym) and published in 2014. It’s a science-fiction thriller about an assassin who literally has no emotions.
In a dystopian future, an assassin with no emotions is asked to locate a missing woman. When his emotions start returning, he has to decide whether to carry out his orders to kill the woman or break with his employers and protect her… and the secret she has uncovered.
Spark: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
In the near future, androids known as nubots have replaced most human workers, causing mass unemployment. The anti-nubot underground, known as the neo-ludites, carried out a terrorist attack known as ‘The Day of Rage’, since when the world has become a police state where a surveillance system known as EYE monitors everyone.
Jacob Underwood is an assassin ‘solving problems decisively’ for a multinational bank. He has undergone what he calls Transformation, and has no attachment to the world, feeling only a few minor emotions such as boredom, curiosity and agitation. He describes the essence of a person as their ‘spark’ and their body as a ‘shell’. Most people’s spark is closely connected to their shell, but because of his Transformation his are not connected.
Underwood’s controller, Miss Holquist, assigns him to find a missing worker from the bank, Emily Buchanan. Underwood discovers Emily has information about illegal transactions by an Indian bank. He travels to India, where the bank president asks him to assassinate his son-in-law, who has stolen bank funds.
In a couple of flashbacks, the reader learns that Underwood was involved in a fatal motorbike accident but was revived, leaving him in a coma with terrible head injuries. When he recovered consciousness, he felt ‘transformed’, with no emotional response to his friends, mother or girlfriend. At first he could not function, until a researcher taught him some rules that enabled him to survive in human society. He was then recruited and trained as an assassin by the bank.
In Paris, Underwood carries out the assassination, but against orders he spares the son-in-law’s wife and child. Back in New York, Holquist is suspicious but Underwood manages to convince her he made a mistake. She orders him to return to locating Emily, as information is still missing.
Underwood traces Emily through her contacts with the neo-ludite underground. When Underwood finds Emily, Holquist orders him to kill her…
Underwood [blackout]tries to kill Emily, but finds himself unable to do so. Instead he takes her to another neo-ludite group to retrieve the information, in the hope the bank will then let her live. The neo-ludites discover proof that the bank set up the Day of Rage as an excuse to impose draconian security legislation. They wanted to protect their profits from replacing human workers with nubots, which the neo-ludite protests threatened.[/blackout]
Holquist [blackout]sends other assassins after Underwood. They kill all the neo-ludites except Emily, who they take prisoner. Underwood retrieves the information and evades the assassins. He bargains with Holquist to return the information if she releases Emily. Holquist agrees to meet in New York to make the trade.[/blackout]
Three assassins [blackout]arrive with Emily, but have no intention of trading and attempt to eliminate Underwood. He kills them all. Underwood tells Emily to try to escape across the border to Canada and then goes to confront Holquist.[/blackout]
Holquist [blackout]makes a last effort to convince Underwood to follow orders. When he refuses, she shoots him, and is about to kill him when she is distracted by her phone. Underwood retrieves a gun from his ankle holster and kills her.[/blackout]
Whether [blackout]Underwood dies or escapes is left open, but the final section suggests he has at least regained some of his human emotions.[/blackout]
Although a hybrid, Spark mostly has a Mystery plot (see Spy Novel Plots). Emily Buchanan is missing and Underwood tries to find her and discover what is behind the disappearance. The twist comes though when he finds Emily, and learns the truth. At that point he has to make a decision about whose side to support: Emily’s or Holquist’s.
The Mystery Plot
- Discovers a disaster perpetrated by an unknown Antagonist for unknown reasons (or is assigned to investigate by their Mentor).
- Makes a plan to investigate the tragedy and determine who the Antagonist is.
- Investigates and gathers clues suggesting who the Antagonist is.
- Is impeded by the Antagonist.
- Involves one or more Allies in their investigation (Optionally, there is a romance subplot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to discover further clues to the identity of the Antagonist, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they encounter them.
- Discovers the identity of the Antagonist and the reasons for their actions and any wider plan.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Optionally, is involved in a final confrontation with the Antagonist and stops (or fails to stop) them carrying out their plan.
The story though is largely about Underwood and his character as a man with no emotions.
Underwood is a great character. He’s in the tradition of many emotionless assassins, but as his lack of emotion is a product of his Cotard’s Syndrome, not him being a sociopath, the reader has more sympathy for him, and as his emotional responses start to return the reader’s empathy engages.
In Spark, Underwood has ‘Cotard’s Syndrome’, a rare mental illness where the victim believes they are dead or non-existent. It is also known as ‘negation of the self’. The novel uses Cotard’s Syndrome metaphorically and as a vehicle for John Twelve Hawks to present his own ideas on the nature of humanity, rather than being an accurate description of the syndrome.
John Twelve Hawks makes Underwood a relatively sympathetic character, by making him care for dogs, who he regards as at the top of the pyramid of life. The author is also careful to make sure Underwood isn’t shown performing any completely unsympathetic actions of the sort an emotionless assassin might be expected to commit. For example, relatively early in the novel, Underwood doesn’t kill the defenceless woman and child.
And, for a man with no emotions, Underwood often seems quite emotional, feeling ‘agitated’, ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘soothed’ for example.
There are over a dozen different diagrams in the novel. This one for example shows the concept of ‘Spark and Shell’ as described by Underwood in the novel. Most people’s Spark is closely connected to their Shell but, because of his Transformation, Underwood’s is not.
The top diagram shows a connected spark and shell, while the lower diagram shows how Underwood believes his are disconnected.
I was in two minds about the diagrams, some of them added more to the novel than others.
Cogito Ergo Sum
One of the themes of Spark is what it means to be ‘alive’. The philosophical statement “I think therefore I am” is discussed several times in the novel. There are several discussions of robots, mechanical automata, artificial intelligence, and the role of instinct and routine in people’s lives.
The authorities monitor people and pick up when their behaviour deviates from ‘normal’, reducing everyone to predictable cogs in the machine. Only a few rebels in the neo-ludite underground resist.
The underground have various responses, including acting based on random numbers, hiding the IDs that the authorities use to track them, and producing artistic and artisan work that is incapable of being done by machines.
The theme is explored in depth and the reader is not left in much doubt about where the author’s sympathies lie.
Spark: Book Cover
I like the cover a lot. Aesthetically the author’s name is a little bright compared to the rest of the cover, but I guess that was a marketing decision.
Spark: My Verdict
The best thriller I’ve read this year.
Want to read it?
A Kill in the Morning
If you like Spark then you really should consider reading my novel A Kill in the Morning, which also features an assassin in a dystopian sci-fi world. You can read the opening here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning.
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