A group of at-risk kids are the unknowing subjects of an experiment intended to maximize their potential. But the experiment goes horribly wrong, as such experiments inevitably do. One daycare center becomes the subject of a notorious trial when all its kids start having violent and sexual nightmares; none of them recall any actual abuse, but the center goes under anyway. Journalist Renny Sand covers the trial, and is surprised by the wise-beyond-their-years self-possession of all the child witnesses.

Years later, someone is methodically murdering the children involved in the experiment. Renny starts researching, and finds that the entire story leads back to Alexander Marcus, an African-American legend who might have become President, but was mysteriously assassinated long ago.

The middle is a bit draggy and also features a scene so homophobic that I almost threw the book across the room. (Dude! Just because they’re gay bodybuilding thugs does not mean they are rapist gay bodybuilding thugs!) However, after that moment of massive fail, the scattered narrative threads start twining together in such a compelling manner that book-throwing became impossible, at least for me. If the homophobia isn’t a dealbreaker, I recommend this for its extremely suspenseful climax, a cool and original twist on the old “build a better human” idea, a very believable sixty-eight-year-old action heroine (former Secret Service), and, of course, my favorite thing, (almost) psychic kids. The prose is much better than in Blood Brothers, too.

One of the central plotlines, which I won’t get into too much detail on due to spoilers but which becomes clear in general terms early on, is that the dead hero Marcus might have had a very nasty secret. This is one case in which the author’s race did affect my reading of the book: if Barnes was not black, it would have been hard not to read this as “of course the African-American heroic legend is really [something awful].” But since Barnes himself is African-American and can be presumed to be conscious of those sorts of stereotypes, I read it as a take on the classic nightmare of any member of an oppressed minority: that the person held up as the great hero of your race will turn out to have feet of clay, and then, because you don’t have the privilege of being judged individually, everyone else will take that as a commentary on your entire race.

Like Woody Allen’s “Jew eat?” bit in Annie Hall (a joke about seeing anti-Semitism everywhere, even in the inquiry "Did you eat?"), which is self-deprecating humor coming from a Jew that would be plain deprecating coming from a gentile, some things come across differently depending on who’s saying them – if for no other reason than the presumption that at least the author is aware of what the stereotypes are, and so is presumably deliberately trying to do something with them. Though, of course, intent is not a guarantee of success, unconscious stereotyping can affect anyone, and I’m sure some Jews did find “Jew eat? No? Did’jew?” offensive regardless of the author. Anyway, that was my take on Marcus; yours may be different.

I note with regret but without surprise that there are no black people on the cover, just a pair of disembodied eyes.

Click here to buy it from Amazon: Charisma
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