I had wanted to review this novel closer to its initial release, but my reading queue was just too full at the time and the opportunity unfortunately had passed. I was happy then to learn about Crown Publishing Group’s Blogging for Books program and request this for my inaugural selection. The plot description seemed like something that would be right up my alley, a genre mashup between the gritty, hard-boiled, noir thrillers you might expect to find in the Hard Case Crime lineup and a dystopian, post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. Count me in for the fun.
And I wasn’t disappointed. I cracked this open not long after it arrived and finished it within a couple of sittings over the course of the day. If I were able I probably would have just torn through it in one, and would have had just as much fun savoring it. During the opening section of the novel I wondered why it had the sci-fi setting to it, the story could have just as easily existed in a present reality. Thankfully my worry dissipated as the novel continued and the science fiction element became integrated seamlessly into the plot beyond the post apocalyptic setting.
Shovel Ready is set in a near future New York City that has been decimated by a terrorist dirty bomb detonated in Time Square. This event, in conjunction with smaller coordinated bombings and follow-ups has a greater psychological and economic effect on the city in aftermath than the actual physical destruction it causes. New York becomes fragmented between a wealthy upper-class able to hire security and care in high-rise apartments, permitting their retreat into virtual reality utopias, and a lower class seeking to survive in the lawless rubble below. If they choose to stay.
As in Delaney’s Dhalgren, the New York City of Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready is an isolated zone of chaotic culture, an apocalyptic blip within an America that otherwise may be completely ‘normal’. The people who have chosen to stay in New York have nothing else, are committed to its condition and either the opportunities or curses it provides. The novel thus fits into a fascinating area of apocalyptic literature where the disaster and subsequent conditions are relatively localized.
Within this environment is the protagonist and narrator of the novel, Spademan, a former city garbage collector who lost his wife in the initial dirty bomb-related attacks, and who now survives as being a dispassionate hitman operating under a strict professional code. Despite wanting to keep a professional distance from his clients and targets, Spademan finds that his latest client is a powerfully famous religious leader (cultish one may say) involved with providing the hopeless ‘heaven on Earth’ through virtual reality tech. More problematic, the target given to Spademan turns out to be his client’s own rebellious daughter, and she may not fit into Spademan’s code.
Spademan is a fantastic character, worthy to fill the pages of any pulp or ‘serious/literary’ crime novel. Sternbergh does a fabulous job introducing the reader to the flawed and vulnerable character, establishing the rules of his hitman profession, and slowly divulging the details of his past that have led him to his current employment.
Mixed into the great hard-boiled protagonist creation Sternbergh includes many noir hallmarks, from shady thugs, double-crosses, big bad crime leader villains, and a femme fatale. Spademan’s initial target, who becomes an asset he desires to protect fits the femme fatale mold generally well. On a surface level she seems painted the weak female needing a strong male figure (a rather awful misogyny of course on its own), but in reality she is in greater control, and more capable, than one may think, and from the start Spademan learns that she can pack a deadly bite.
In some way these noir aspects of Shovel Ready make it familiar and expected. This could have led it being a decent, slightly above-average hard crime story. The setting and the use of the virtual reality technology as an integral element to the plot make this rise above to something even better. While becoming relevant to the plot, the technology is also used as commentary for class division in this post-apocalyptic New York. While this ‘have vs have not’ kind of message is nothing new or handled rather superficially here, it is refreshing to see it in the kind of entertaining quick read here that could easily still be an enjoyable novel without its inclusion.
By putting the sci-fi aspect in with a dash of blatant social commentary, Sternbergh manages to give a little weight to Shovel Ready without stifling the pure entertaining joys of the thriller. This is a mashup that will certainly appeal to almost all crime/hitman-type story lovers and as a mashup to certain speculative fiction fans. Though I probably shouldn’t encourage more series out there, Spademan and his gritty environment could easily expand into further works, and I’d pick up one of them without hesitation. On the other hand, this makes me curious to see how far Sternbergh’s talents extend.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Crown Publishing via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.