"A Better World"
By: Marcus Sakey
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
"Brilliance": 439 pages
"A Better World": 376 pages
"Brilliance" at
"A Better World" at
Marcus Sakey website:
A Better World
Regarding Arts reviews
of Marcus Sakey books
"The Blade Itself," January 2007
"At City's Edge," January 2008

Terrific series limns worlds
of social difference
Marcus Sakey's 'Brilliance' and 'A Better World'
are sci-fi thrillers with something to say
July 6, 2014

I first came across Marcus Sakey when I reviewed his first novel, "The Blade Itself," in 2007. It was terrific, and I ended that short review with "Great stuff; here's hoping Sakey has more such novels in him."

Well, Sakey has had a lot of books in him, as it turns out, but he hasn't limited himself to crime capers, such as "The Blade Itself." I recently read "Brilliance" and "A Better World," two books of the same saga, and completely admire them both.

They have all the emotional excitement and visceral thrills of "The Blade Itself," but are excellent science-fiction, and like all good science-fiction, contain some real warning about the world we live in today.

"Brilliance" tells the story of "brilliants," also called "twists," people born with unusual gifts. A woman named Vasquez for instance, who can see code. "Algorithms that confound straights are just patterns to me. They come in my dreams."

And Cooper, who can tell in a glance what people are going to do next. Maybe before they know what they are going to do.

But, that one percent of people is not trusted by the other 99 percent. Problems happen. Deaths happen. And Cooper, a twist himself, becomes a hunter of other twists, in the service of "normal" people.

Marcus Sakey
Jay Franco photo
Author Marcus Sakey

One of the key bits of this science-fiction history is that certain brilliants can tell all too easily what will happen with the stock market, and the government steps in to dissolve it, in an effort to keep the brilliants from having too much economic control.

Well, two things about that: Computer trading programs have already, in effect, overwhelmed the stock market, and most of us are basically just suckers to try to make money that way anyway. That is not science-fiction. And the other thing that occurred to me while reading "Brilliance" is that we already have this going on — elite people with smart skills changing the world.

If information is power (and it is), Google is the most powerful company in the world. Facebook, while no Google, is still hugely powerful, sucking up information about all its users and even — as was discussed just recently in the news — experimenting with the emotions of its users by manipulating what they see in their news feeds.

Some of the brilliants, the twists, of Sakey's saga are people who can code. People who can manipulate computers, which are the circulation and nervous systems of our lives.

That's what I kept thinking, anyway, while reading these two fine thrillers.

In the first, "Brilliance," Cooper, a lonely guy who misses the wife who left him because she couldn't stand him always knowing what she was going to do, tracks twists. But then he discovers, hey, maybe the twists aren't so bad after all ... maybe it is some other force that is causing the trouble.

And he meets a brilliant woman, Shannon, who can maybe make him forget his wife for a little while. Maybe.

Part of the meat of "Brilliance" is watching Cooper learn things, and develop. A very good novel, and great read.

In "A Better World," the world is being torn apart. As Shannon tells Cooper, "Most people, norm or abnorm, just want to get along, but the extremists are forcing everyone to take sides. You know that in Liberia they've started abandoning babies with birthmarks? They believe it's a sign of the gifted, so they just dump them. In Mexico, brilliants have taken over the cartels and are using them against the government. Private armies headed by abnorm warlords and funded by drug money."

In America, there seem to be two major camps within the abnorms — New Canaan, a community of brilliants in Wyoming, where they all endeavor to live in solar-powered peace — and a group called Children of Darwin, who are in open revolt against the government and norms.

Norms and abnorms are killing each other in gruesome ways.

And the government is doing very poorly at understanding or controlling things. First-tier abnorms are kidnapped and put into horrid re-education camps. Senators are talking about implanting tracking devices in all abnorms.

And Cooper is caught right in the middle of it. Shannon wants him to help her mentor, John Smith, a brilliant whose gifts include being able to plan strategically to an astounding degree, and who is fighting the government's ill treatment of abnorms. And the president of the United States (a different one than in the first book), recruits Cooper as an advisor.

Terrorists have cut off three cities, including Cleveland, from power and food. The government seems unable to help, with paranoia and fear of biological weapons resulting in a misuse of the National Guard.

In Cleveland is a scientist, Ethan, whose boss has apparently been kidnapped. The government is very interested in finding out what Ethan and his boss have been studying, but Ethan keeps his mouth shut, citing the non-disclosure agreement he'd signed.

Meanwhile, Ethan's neighborhood is being taken over by the same panic that is happening all over Cleveland, so Ethan and his wife and baby hit the road, trying to find safety. A side story with big implications, and lots of excitement.

Cooper's role in the White House turns out to be hugely important. The new president is an academic who fell into to the job with the resignation of the previous, corrupt president. The secretary of defense, a practiced, connected politician, is trying to manipulate the president into taking violent action against all brilliants.

Cooper manages to stall that plan, and is sent to New Canaan as ambassador, to try to find a way to avert war. New Canaan is great. A custom-built community funded by a billionaire brilliant, and one that survives with solar power and by taking water from the air.

Cooper admires it. For one thing, his daughter, a brilliant, can live there safely, without being a freak, without being threatened.

And: "His own government had focused on containment and control, on smashing anything deemed dangerous.

"Funny, there had been a time when building things was what America did. From massive dams to towering skyscrapers, from mechanized factories to moon rockets, the nation had created, had viewed that as part of the national identity. Being an engineer or an architect had once been high aspirations.

"Now everybody wanted to be musicians and basketball players, and America didn't build squat."

One of the most interesting — and dangerous — of the brilliants Sakey has dreamed up for this is Soren, for whom time moves much faster than it does for normal people.

"Books he loved. Movies and tri-d and stage plays and dance and comedy and sports and music were all torture. No matter the intelligence of a screenplay, no matter the elegance of a joke, at his timescale they were endless. Each note of a Bach concerto was drawn out until all meaning and emotion were lost.

"But a book. He'd learned long ago how to widen his eyes to take in the whole page, focusing on individual words with his mind rather than his pupils. A good book was close to personal nothingness, a place the self could be lost. He often ready five or six books between rising and sleeping."

Soren is useful as a killer, because he can enter a situation, slice open throats with a blade and be gone before anybody knows he was there.

Sakey also gives us some laughs with this immensely creative book. One of my favorite bits is on a between-chapters page titled


Lonely at the Top

T1 physicist seeking other Tier Ones for conversation, friendship, more if we're both feeling it. Age, race, gender unimportant.

Knock Me Up

Attractive norm woman, 37, seeking T1 for night of passionate procreation. No condoms, no strings. Just drop your jeans and gimme those genes.

All the fear of difference — a common weakness in America — and all the manipulation of narrow-minded politicians, and the power of intelligence, and what Ethan had been studying, and Cooper's unflagging devotion to doing what he believes is right, come together in a true thrill ride of an ending to "A Better World."

I suggest starting with "Brilliance," but "A Better World" can be a stand-alone. I am hoping that Sakey will continue the story with another book, but have no information about that.

Email John Orr at


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