Earlier this year, I had the esteemed pleasure of seeing author Terry Brooks. Words cannot describe the sheer awesomeness of meeting one of my literary heroes. His epic fantasy worlds of Shannara and Landover inspired my dreams of becoming a writer myself. Although he talked about several upcoming projects, the one I was most excited for was the release of his science fiction novel Street Freaks. This is a vast departure from anything he has ever written, trading in elves and dragons for flying vehicles and genetically engineered people. While I would not rank this as the best science fiction ever, I will say that Brooks has written a fast-paced thrill ride that is nonstop fun from beginning to end.
Street Freaks takes place several years in the future. The United States has become fragmented between technologically advanced cities and lawless areas called Red Zones where there are constant uprisings against the government. Ash Collins is a sheltered teenager being raised by his scientist father who is often gone working on top-secret projects for a major bio-engineering corporation. Ash’s comfortable life abruptly changes one day after receiving a mysterious video call from his father ordering him to go to the local Red Zone and seek asylum at a place known as Street Freaks. Moments later, Ash’s home is attacked and he is forced to go on the run. Once he finally arrives in the Red Zone narrowly escaping with his life, Ash becomes involved with a renegade group of teenagers, all of whom have been genetically altered in different ways that have given them abilities but also have made them outcasts. Ash soon learns that his father died from an apparent suicide, but he suspects that something much larger is taking place. Working with the Street Freaks, Ash attempts to solve the mystery behind his father’s death and the secrets that could possibly change the world as he knows it.
My first impression while reading Street Freaks is that it would make a great series for a network like the CW or even MTV (definitely a possibility since Shannara was adapted into an MTV series). This is not meant as an insult, just that the narrative of Street Freaks is written more in the style of the young adult genre. Ash serves as your fairly typical hero, nice guy who might be a bit clueless at first. The remainder of the cast consists of a group of snarky teens who have been genetically altered in some fashion, such as Holly whose body is enhanced with cybernetics and T.J. who was bred to be some type of super soldier. As Ash slowly integrates himself into this group of misfits, he learns that their cover of being a shop to enhance cars is merely a front for their true business of hacking large corporations for profit. Between dangerous car racing, fighting street thugs, and uncovering life-changing conspiracies, Street Freaks moves at such a fast pace that the popcorn appeal of the narrative often masks some of the flaws in the storytelling.
As Ash learns more about his new friends and life within the Red Zone in general, he discovers that his father’s death was not all that it appeared to be. Through the abilities of the Street Freaks, Ash uncovers a much larger conspiracy. There is plenty of danger to enjoy with every chapter, from dangerous car races, street gangs, and a sinister corporate conspiracy. Behind it all lies Ash’s uncle who primarily works as the not very compelling villain of the story.
While I have no issues with the YA genre in general, I thought at times this style hampered what could have been a stronger effort. There are some greater themes at work such as how the government is trying to do what is best for us or asking the question as to what makes us human, but this seems to get lost at times under all the teenage angst. While I liked Ash as a character, I got very annoyed by the love story in this one. Cay was created as a pleasure synth whose only function is to attract and seduce men. She managed to break away from that programming which is how she ended up with Street Freaks. While I have no issues with love stories, it got slightly irritating that there had to be reference after reference of how much Ash loved Cay. It struggled to feel believable at times.
In the end, I am glad that I read Street Freaks as it was fun to see Brooks step outside the fantasy realm and attempt something different. While this is a dystopian work that will never reach the success level of The Hunger Games, it is a fun read that never gets boring. While there are no groundbreaking ideas to be found here, this is still a lot to be said for the good old-fashioned science fiction thriller. Hopefully, Brooks will continue to occasionally step outside of his comfort zone. If not, then at least we have his fantasy novels to enjoy.
“Everything about this day has been beyond weird for Ash Collins-right from the moment he received his father’s vidview and started running. But going inside Street Freaks takes things to a whole new level.”