***Thank you to the author, Nicholas Conley, for providing me a copy of his novel in exchange for an honest review.***
Holy reading slump, Batman! March was a rough month for me. I’m finishing up a graduate certificate program, trying to learn some more marketable skills to change careers, and ultimately getting rejection after rejection from companies I have applied to. I’ve been busy, yes, but when I do have time to sit down and read, I don’t really want to because I do so much reading all day at work, which has made me even more sad. I can always tell when my depression is spiking because I tend to not read at all. But! That certainly wasn’t this book’s fault. In fact, I would say that this book started to pull me out of my reading slump because I was very motivated to keep turning the page once I got into it.
This book takes place in a dystopian future of the 2030’s in which the U.S. has split into 179 different states. Propaganda and conspiracy theories have made for a very unstable political climate, and one company, Thorne Century Inc., runs many aspects of the country, making everything from cars to pharmaceuticals. Billy Jakobek and his family have struggled with his strange psychic powers and visions since he was a baby. Billy can sense others’ feelings by being near them, and when he touches other people, even stranger things happen. When a representative from Thorne Century Inc. knocks on his family’s door one day, Billy’s life takes a drastic turn. After being taken into custody, Billy is moved to the industrial city of Heaven’s Hole so that he can experience a “normal” teenage life while still being under the company’s thumb. While Billy begins to make friends, and even experiences a budding romance, he also finds out that the company’s plans for him and his powers extend far beyond what he or anyone else could imagine.
Billy Jakobek is Jewish, and since the author is also Jewish, this can be considered an “own voices” novel. And I have to say, I am so glad to see a novel, especially a speculative novel, from a Jewish author with a Jewish main character. I’ve only read one other novel from an author with a Jewish family history that wasn’t a historical fiction dealing with the Holocaust (which was The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin). I’m definitely not knocking Holocaust novels, but it is just so nice to see something different being published. That isn’t to say that the Holocaust isn’t mentioned in Knight in Paper Armor, because it is still a major part of Billy’s family history, but there are so many other issues and dimensions to both the story’s plot and Billy’s characterization. The novel as a whole approaches a plethora of tough topics and current events, like the rise of Nazism in the U.S., immigration and discrimination against immigrants, predatory capitalism, workers’ rights, media manipulation, and it even mentions effects of climate change, to name a few. Despite the characters being older teens, there are a lot of other tough topics and possibly triggering scenes. There’s violence, anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, death and serious injury, abuse/explorations of immigrant workers and children, planned terrorism, and probably other things I’m forgetting!
First up, the characters. I liked our two main characters, Billy and Natalia, quite a bit. Billy struggled a lot with his inner emotions and guilt, but it was easy to tell that he had a very good heart. Natalia Gonzales was a very headstrong Latina, and although I didn’t always agree with her actions, I thought that they fit her impulsive and passionate nature. I also thought that both Billy and Natalia’s cultures were well incorporated into the novel. The author mentions in the acknowledgements that he had cultural sensitivity beta readers critique his representation of Natalia and her family, so that has probably helped the novel be more faithful in how Natalia’s undocumented family issues and Mexican roots are presented. At times the teenaged dialogue felt a little off, but it’s often hard to get that right as an adult writer.
There were also several very diverse side characters, which made sense because Heaven’s Hole was said to be a town with many immigrants who worked at the factory. The villain was very evil, and though there was a backstory about this character, I think why they were so very evil could have been fleshed out a bit more. My favorite side characters were Billy and Natalia’s grandmothers, because I love some strong-willed, outspoken grannies! One aspect of the main characters that I didn’t like was how quickly Billy and Natalia’s romance happened. On one hand, it makes sense that Billy felt an attraction so quickly because of his psychic powers, but Natalia seemed more attracted to Billy than he was to her at the start. Something happens shortly after they meet that brings them very close together, but I just prefer more of a slow burn. One thing I will say is that the author had no mercy for his characters. No one had plot armor, and no one came out completely unscathed, which was actually quite refreshing, if heartbreaking, to see.
Regarding the plot, I enjoyed it overall. The story surprised me a few times too. The experimentation and kids with powers reminded me a bit of Stephen King’s The Institute or even Firestarter as well as a bit of Stranger Things the TV show, which was what made me want to review this novel in the first place. There was definitely a similar vibe, but I don’t think I’d classify the story as horror– dark sci-fi might fit. Parts of the narrative take place in an “other world” that has some very surreal imagery. Some of it appears to be inspired by the dybbuk of Jewish folklore as well as imagery based on Nazi concentration camps. I wish that Billy’s powers and some of the surreal scenes were described in more detail. I had a little trouble picturing some scenes, but I also just really enjoy lengthy, flowery descriptions. (I know that isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.) I also think that there is some suspension of realism needed for how Billy’s powers were going to be used since that wasn’t explained in detail, but hey, it is a speculative novel. It just depends on how much of a realistic explanation you need for this kind of thing.
My main issue with the plot was the pacing. There was a lot of action, and sometimes it felt like the characters didn’t have enough time to process the losses or emotional strain that they experienced. They had to bounce back fairly quickly because there was always something else going wrong that they had to respond to. This is addressed to some extent because the chapters are written in limited third-person perspective, with individual chapters from the view of one character, but there could have been more exploration of the characters in regard to what they experienced because, as I said, there’s a lot of stuff that just goes horribly for everyone. I quite liked the book’s ending though. There is a good payoff at the end and some light at the end of the dark tunnel the characters went through.
I would give Knight in Paper Armor 3.75 stars if I’m being very specific. However, I’m rounding up to 4 on many platforms because I think that the book does a lot of things right. I definitely think it deserves more attention than it has been getting, and I look forward to seeing what else this author comes up with in the future because this was certainly a unique reading experience from a cultural perspective you don’t see much of in sci-fi/fantasy.