The first novel in Michael J. Martinez’s excellent MJ-12 series, Inception, was an excellent blend of a spy novel and a superhero story. The big question, then, was how would its follow up, Shadows, fare? As it turned out, it’s even better than the first novel was. Shadows takes everything that was good about Inception, cranks it up to 11, and runs with it as fast as it can in order to craft a gripping, tense, and satisfying thriller that does justice to both the characters and themes introduced in the first book. In MJ-12: Shadows, it’s 1949, and the Cold War is heating up across the world. For the United States, the key to winning might be Variants―once ordinary US citizens, now imbued with strange paranormal abilities and corralled into covert service by the government’s top secret MAJESTIC-12 program. Some Variants are testing the murky international waters in Syria, while others are back at home, fighting to stay ahead of a political power struggle in Washington. And back at Area 51, the operation’s headquarters, the next wave of recruits are anxiously awaiting their first mission. All the while, dangerous figures flit among the shadows and it’s unclear whether they are threatening to expose the Variants for what they are . . . or to completely destroy them. Are they working for the Soviet Union, or something far worse?
MJ-12: Shadows benefits a lot from being the second book in a series. Unlike the first novel, Shadows doesn’t have to spend a third of the book setting up the premise and all of the characters, and one of the things I like the most about how Martinez wrote this book is that he trusts his audience will have read (or will read) the first book and doesn’t spend a truckload of time recapping the events of the first novel. Things are mentioned here and there as needed, but unlike a lot of second books in a series, the first chapter or two aren’t just recaps of the first novel. MJ-12: Shadows really starts off with a bang, focusing on its own stories and the furthering of its characters. I applaud Martinez for assuming his audience would be able to keep up with that. It’s a good assumption to make; audiences should always be treated as smart enough to follow something.
Like the first novel, I love how Martinez weaves real history with the fantastical elements of his story. There’s something so satisfying about the way Truman confronts Hoover (about halfway through the book). I don’t know if something like that ever actually happened, but man was it fun reading it. I’m always a fan of alternate history stories when they’re done well (not ones that just explore the boring, borderline-racist ideas of what would happen if the South won the Civil War), and the MJ-12 series is a really great example of how to tell an alternate history story. We all know that there weren’t people who were given powers as a result of a vortex that opened up in the aftermath of the atomic bomb running around on espionage missions for the United States government, but it’s fun as hell reading a story that weaves them into real historical events. What if there were Variants involved in events in the Middle East in the late 1940s? There weren’t, but it’s fun to think about, and that’s what MJ-12 excels at.
It also excels at being a really gripping story. It’s impressive how many separate plot threads Martinez juggles in this book, and it’s even more impressive how he’s able to usher those threads into a climax that actually ties them up satisfactorily while laying the groundwork for future novels, too. His grasp of the seemingly unconnected threads is masterful, and he ushers the audience through their disparate strands, helping us form the connections that are there without holding our hands or spelling it out for us. There’s such pleasure when you reach the end of the novel and you realize that this thing you found odd that happened in one of the plot threads was actually super important to one of the other plot threads, and things start making even more sense. It’s a hard thing to pull off well, but Martinez pulls it off like it’s as easy as breathing for him.
A lot of the novel is dedicated to exploring the toll that the events of the first novel, and the events of the series in general, have taken on the characters. How are the Variants handling their still new and confusing powers? How are the people in power handling the potential threat of these superhumans? How do religious people, like Cal, handle working for the US Intelligence service – a service that kills people daily – while trying to stay true to his oath to not use his powers to kill people? How does all of this affect the real people who have to deal with it? Martinez spends a lot of time in MJ-12: Shadows exploring these very questions, and he makes each characters’ own journey feel unique to who they are. He’s juggling so many characters, but they’re all going on their own separate, individual journeys, and it’s impressive how Martinez is able to explore these questions with each character’s own unique conditions. Honestly, this aspect of the novel might even be more interesting than the action and mystery are.
Speaking of the action and mystery, this novel is really a great mixture of a mystery novel and an action novel. Most good spy novels are really mystery novels at their hearts, and MJ-12: Shadows is no different. Martinez juggles several different mysteries throughout the novel, and all of them are interesting. Who in the MJ-12 program is leaking information to unqualified personnel? What’s going on in Syria? What, exactly, is Dr. Schreiber up to? Who/what are these weird shadowy figures that keep popping up? The novel juggles all of those mysteries, and – more or less – answers them all in a satisfactory way, or at least in a way that will eventually lead to a satisfactory answer in the future. It does this while making sure to include a number of exciting action sequences, scattered throughout the book. All the characters get a chance to be in an action sequence, and each action sequence really gives the characters in it the chance to let their powers shine. Martinez is great at writing characters, he’s great at writing mysteries, and he’s great at writing action sequences, too.
MJ-12: Shadows improves on the foundations laid out in MJ-12: Inception in every way and ultimately ends up being even better than the first book was. The characters are developed in ways that are emotionally true to who they are and narratively interesting and relevant, the plot is expanded in ways that are both surprising and completely logical, and the alternate history elements are managed with continued grace and knowledge. MJ-12: Shadows is an excellent book in every way you look at it. It’s gripping, entertaining, and suspenseful. Martinez expertly juggles the demands of the mysteries, the action scenes, and the character moments of the novel. No single element outweighs another, and it all coalesces into a sensible, enjoyable whole. The characters are fleshed out and relatable. It’s well researched, well paced, and well written. It feels like the logical follow up to the first novel while also taking the series into new and interesting directions. If you enjoyed the first novel, you’ll definitely enjoy this one, and you’ll find yourself eagerly awaiting the publication of the third novel (hopefully there’s a third novel! There’s still so much left unexplored). Michael J. Martinez is definitely an author that everybody should be watching. His books may seem to target a niche audience, but he does a great job at bridging the gaps between genres. This is a spy novel, a superhero novel, an action thriller, a mystery, and an engaging examination of humans thrust into dangerous positions. I can’t recommend it enough.
(5 out of 5 wands)