Alien Taste – Wen Spencer (Review)

alien taste

Ukiah Oregon knows little about his past. Raised by wolves and then by adoptive parents, he doesn’t even know how old he is. That’s not the only thing that sets him apart – he has a perfect memory, preternatural senses, and severe injuries heal in hours.

Working as a tracker, he’s solved mysteries and saved lives. But when a tracking case going violently wrong, Ukiah gets his first clues to both his real origins and a secret war that endangers the whole of humanity. 

This book has all the trappings of urban fantasy, but it’s actually science fiction. I don’t care for the blending of the two genres, but here its a question of tone, not concept – the masquerade and non-human powers are given a sci-fi explanation, rather than a magic one. I’m okay with that, and is interesting to see how much the urban fantasy genre depends on archetypes that aren’t really part of it, but bear in mind that this is not about the things that the cover and first few chapters strongly suggest.

Alien Taste is riddled with cliché, perhaps most obviously in the protagonist’s amnesia and total recall. Both of those attributes are massively over-used in fiction, and almost always used poorly to justify poor plotting. That’s not the case here – it’s not amazingly original, but there are strong reasons given for both characteristics, and they are pushed to the forefront of the narrative; the author puts a lot of effort into making Ukiah’s abilities seem concrete and thinking about the implications of each revelation. I’m always in favour of books that try to authentically present inhumanity and extra senses – Spencer’s ability to do so is a real strength.

The plot increases in scope extremely fast, from a single missing person to a war between outlaw gangs to the fate of the world and possibly the galaxy. Some aspects are rather thinly developed, given the size of the book and how much time and space is covered, which is a shame. The focus on the key characters going through it all means that the narrative is still easy to follow, but I’ll be interested to see how the sequels handle all of the inconvenient side-effects that all normal people would have noticed.

The best word to describe this book is “endearing”. Despite Ukiah’s stereotypical trappings as an action hero – the motorcycle, the strength-and-silence – he’s actually a wide-eyed innocent. His character development often takes centre-stage instead of the main plot, and watching him fall in love for the first time, take care of his sweet-but-odd mothers, and explore his relationship to his boss, makes for a rather different story to the standard thriller I was expecting. Everything is seen through his lens on the world, and it’s a very easy lens to empathise with.

I was surprised at the complexity of this book, and at how much I found it engrossing. It is, as the cover suggest, a big dumb thriller, but it’s one with heart and one with more deliberate craft than you might expect. I was impressed by how solid the foreshadowing was. I went in to this with low expectations, expecting fun but not anything more, and was pleasantly disappointed.

Buy it here.

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