Book Review: Steel Whispers

I would like to recommend Steel Whispers, by Hayden Trenholm for the Aurora Award this year. This is an exciting sequel to Defining Diana, which was nominated last year. This novel once again follows Frank Steele in a brilliantly imagined future Calgary.

The pacing of this novel started off strong, and kept me reading at a frenetic pace. In particular, the opening hook has a great deal of emotional impact, and as the mystery draws itself out, layers of character development are revealed. Within the first pages, Frank Steele begins investigating the murder of his estranged son, as part of an ongoing case of Borg (cyborg) murders. Frank protests his emotional investment in the case, and the novel focuses on how Frank comes to understand his son. Hayden builds on this initial level of emotional tension throughout the novel, in a remarkable novel.

The revelation that his son had Borg implants is particularly interesting, and handled in a manner consistent with gender identity studies. When Frank asks his ex-wife about their son’s implants, she replies that he was “like all kids – enamoured with what was new and different. He hung with that dress-up crowd at college” but she also admits that she didn’t “pay much attention. I thought it was a fad” (14). She seems genuinely confused as to what actually defines a Borg.

This point is highlighted by one of the viewpoint characters, Buzz Wannamaker, who in addition to being a Borg, is also Native American. Frank notes that “his parents had enough trouble accepting he was Borg without him talking to voices in his head” (26). This dual concept of identity explores the problem of how we see ourselves, and how others see us. When Frank later asks him to define what defines a Borg, Wannamaker suggests that it is not the implants, or at least not just the implants but that “something inside us makes us Borg” (98). This way in which this argument is handled is well done, and quite evocative of some of the LGBT issues in contemporary society.

As a culture inherently different from the social norm, there are other comparisons to gender studies. While “some of the Borg didn’t look much different than regular humans with all of the modifications and augmentation hidden under their skin”, others “liked to flaunt their changes” (10). Due in part to their refusal to submit to the social norms, the Borg are social outcasts. With regards to the Borg murder case, Frank notes that the “press was having a field day with the idea of a Borg serial killer, alternating between a sick fascination with the grisly details and vicious speculation on whether the culprit should be hunted down or given a medal” (16). As seen throughout history, those who are different suffer persecution from cultural orthodoxy.

The investigation into his son’s death is linked together with this sense of identity, and Frank comes to finally learn about his son, and to accept who he became. The action and tension in the story is well maintained, building up towards an exciting confrontation near the end. Hayden’s characters are much more fully developed in this story, as they evolve from detective-noir style caricatures and confront their inner demons. This is a great strength of the novel, as Hayden can effectively characterize with a few sentences, later to build very complex characters whose struggles, failures and successes are meaningful.

This focus on identity has brought an interesting Canadian perspective into the novel.

Author: Nick Matthews

A software developer and English major. Full time geek.

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