Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/11/20/book-review-
Neat is a novella set in the Shadowrun universe featuring the exploits of burned-out mage Jimmy Kincaid. Now, CHL puts out a lot of fiction for Shadowrun, but usually it’s very short stories or sourcebooks like the recent Dirty Tricks, written almost purely in JackPoint prose. It’s been a while, though, since there has been an actual novel devoted to the Shadowrun universe. Before Neat , the closest we had was a nineteen page short story entitled Another Rainy Night, and it’s been years since I could actually pick up a brand new book based on the franchise at my local brick and mortar store, or even on Amazon. So it was nice to see CGL releasing this in .epub and .mobi format instead of in PDF. It may be a digital only novella, but at least that means it’s built specifically for e-readers and thus FEELS like reading a book rather than a PDF. It looks great on my Kindle, by the way.
Jimmy Kincaid is a detective, and as such, Neat is a blend of 20s style noir with 2070s futuristic mega-corporation oligarchy. It’s an odd juxtaposition, but the book makes it work. Aside from a light use of magic, the novella fits into similar genres like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Neuromancer, and other works by Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson. While Neat isn’t as seminal a work as anything by those two authors, or even the stuff Robert Charrette put out in the 90s, it’s still a fun read for hardcore fans of the Shadowrun license. Now, for those that are new to this particular line of games and fiction, you’ll probably be a little lost, as NOTHING is explained, so you’ll never know what JackPoint is or any of the franchise-specific vernacular.
The plot of Neat is both your basic Noir and your basic Shadowrun plot. Alluring and well to do dame Ms. Johnson (A Johnson is the nom de plume of someone hiring your character for corporate espionage or other “runs” in Shadowrun) offers Jimmy Kincaid a large sum of money to track down a young girl who was kidnapped out of her car. Of course, tracking down this young girl is nowhere near as cut and dry as Kincaid would expect, but then, it wouldn’t be a detective/mystery tale if a few curve balls weren’t thrown at the protagonist, right? Kincaid ends up in a few firefights, causes a minor feud between the Yakuza and Mafia and pretty much earns his credstick on this. It’s an interesting read full of well fleshed out characters with believable motivations, and fans of Shadowrun will enjoy the first long meaty piece of fiction set in the universe in some years. I know I did. The mark of a good detective story is whether or not you can actually piece everything together before you get to the end. Now, I don’t mean solve it yourself, but that you can go back and re-read the story with the ending in mind and catch things that you didn’t notice before or realize that some details presented as throw-away text were actually quite important. Neat does all that, and so it fits all the benchmarks of a well-written detective piece.
There are only two problems I had with the story. One is very minor, in that Neat is not very accessible to newcomers. We already talked about that, but suffice it to say, this probably shouldn’t be your first foray into the Sixth World. The other is the twist -slash- “Whodunit” aspect of the story. Don’t get me wrong it’s well done, and it wouldn’t be Noir OR Shadowrun without Kincaid’s employer having ulterior motivations. It all makes sense in the story. The small problem I had is that Kincaid’s job would have not only been a lot easier had Ms. Johnson been completely honest with him from the get-go, but Kincaid himself would have probably tackled the mission with a lot more gusto and positivity simply because this is one of the few cases in Shadowrun where someone would have been wearing a white hat instead of grey or black. All she had to do was speak the truth and things wouldn’t have become as convoluted OR as violent as they did. But then, there would have been no mystery about “Why was person X taken?” and the story would have been MUCH shorter. Still, the conclusion of the story and the “big reveal” will irk some people. It won’t ruin their sense of disbelief or make the story any less fun, but you will probably be sitting there going, “So much of this could have been avoided with honesty.” Basically it’s the Catch-22 of both genres being combined into one novella here. You wouldn’t have a story without the lack of honesty, and yet, you will be annoyed by what could have been come chapter ten. Of course, if honesty wasn’t such a rarity in the Sixth World, shadowrunning wouldn’t be such a lucrative profession, now would it?
So a big thumb’s up here for Neat IF you are a long time fan of Shadowrun. Newcomers should probably read some of the 90s fiction or the core rulebook first. Otherwise, a lot of the tale will be gobblygook and jargon. At only three dollars, Neat is definitely a story well worth picking up for your e-reader. It never drags, and it’s great to see CGL testing the waters for longer pieces of Shadowrun fiction. Maybe at some point we’ll get an omnibus reprint of the old books, or we’ll see Kincaid in the upcoming Shadowrun Returns anthology. I know I’d like to see that myself.