It’s Grim Up North – Driven by Eve Silver
One of the things I’ve been impressed by in my tour through Romancelandia is the sheer cracktastic insanity of some of the books I’ve read. I’m not sure that Driven quite beats Angel’s Blood for sheer weirdness, but I think “post-resource-depletion trans-Siberian trucker dystopia” might just get the prize for “setting I was least expecting to see in a Romance novel.”
As always, spoilers ahead.
Driven tells the story of ice trucker Raina Bowen who, while racing to transport a cargo of genetically modified grain across dystopian future Siberia, encounters a man named Wizard. It soon becomes apparent that Wizard is not entirely normal – he survives a savage beating entirely unscathed, can see in the dark, has preternaturally keen vision and hearing, and estimates probabilities to the nearest fraction of a percent.
Despite being an indestructible ninja badass, Wizard scores pretty low on the alpha dickhead front. He tends to let the heroine have her space, trusts her judgement, and respects her right to make her own decisions. He’s protective of her, but in a “don’t want you to get hurt” way, not a “I will actively prevent you from doing things I don’t want you to do” way. He talks like a computer in a 1980s cartoon series (the guy actually says “affirmative”), and there’s something strangely endearing about his stilted, off-kilter way of expressing himself. He does a pretty good job of being a credible romantic lead despite ostensibly having no emotions, and his arc parallels Raina’s nicely (they both start off as isolated and somewhat paranoid, and ultimately learn not only to care for each other, but also to feel part of a wider community in the Wastes).
About halfway through the book, Raina abandons the delivery job (which turns out not to have been what it seemed) and settles in with a ragtag band of rebels holed up in the frozen north. I always appreciate it when a romance recognises that lovers aren’t the only important people in your life, and Raina’s developing relationships with the various members of the rebel band serve as an important counterpoint to her relationship with Wizard, and to the overarching plot about the evil trucking magnate. I was very, very slightly disappointed that when Raina discovered that Wizard and rebel leader Yuriko had some kind of personal history, she jumped immediately to “they’re dating” rather than – say “they’re comrades in arms”, but that’s a minor quibble.
The plot mostly revolves around the struggle between Raina (and Wizard, and the Rebels) and the aforesaid evil trucking magnate, the fabulously named Duncan Bane. Duncan Bane is basically everything you want in a villain. He’s ruthless, wealthy, sadistic, cacklingly insane, and wears an eyepatch like a scary pirate. The man shows a truly commendable commitment to his role as designated villain. For example, the genetically engineered grain that Raina is delivering at the start of the book is part of some kind of competition that Bane has set up, with a prize of fifty million interdollars. Bane is trying to rig the competition so that an employee from his company will win. He is not doing this because he wants to keep the money, or as far as I can tell because he wants to make the company look good. He is doing this because he plans to have the winner murdered in order to get his cash back, and he wants to kill off one of his own men while he’s doing it so that he can get rid of the guy before his family qualifies for any kind of benefits.
This is a man who would make Darth Vader say “look, it isn’t really any of my business, but you might want to have a serious think about your management style.”
I’ve got to admit that I got a little bit fixated on Duncan Bane. Not in an edgy, slightly emo, oh-but-the-villains-are-always-so-fascinating way, just in a “seriously, how does this guy get through a day” way. By the end of the book I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to eat breakfast without trying to have the eggs assassinated, the bacon flogged and the hash browns stripped, beaten and sent to his bedchamber that he might revel in their suffering. He ostensibly runs a trucking company, but he’s apparently also some kind of major player in something called the New Government Order, and more or less single-handedly rules the entire Northern Waste. Naturally, his primary goal in the book – and the one to which he devotes pretty much his whole fortune and entire private army – is abducting and raping the heroine.
To give him his due, I can see why he’s got such a personal vendetta against her – she managed to cut his eye out the last time he tried to rape her, back when she was twelve (and there’s part of me here that’s going … dude … you couldn’t take her when she was a kid what the hell chance do you stand now). That said, I’m not quite sure why it’s taken him this long to come after her in force (there’s some discussion of the fact that he’s coming for her now because her dad has just died, but since Bane basically rules the north I really don’t see how one dude – who isn’t a genetically engineered supersoldier – would be able to stand in his way).
I think my issues with Bane were part of a wider set of confusions about the worldbuilding. There’s a lot going on in Driven, and a lot of quite detailed implied backstory – right down to specific bits of in-world legislation (like the “Blood-borne Pathogen Act of 2087”). But there were times when I couldn’t quite tell if it all hung together in a sensible or coherent way. There are a lot of references to specific historical events, like the Second Noble War (which kind of implies a First Noble War) which led to the fall of the Old Dominion and the rise of the New Government Order, but it was quite hard to see how it all fit together. Like if laws made in 2087 are still in effect, that would seem to imply that the NGO was already in power by that point (unless they held onto a lot of Old Dominion legislation), but that means that we somehow get from the present day, through not one but two different world governments (unless the “Old Dominion” is supposed to be the current world, but people tend to talk about it like it’s one institution) in about seventy years.
In a lot of ways, the vagueness works quite well. It creates the sense of a believable world without getting too bogged down in the details of how that world is supposed to work. The flip side of this, however, is that sometimes it’s hard to see … well … how the world is supposed to work.
Coming back to Duncan Bane, I spent quite a lot of time struggling to work out exactly where all of his money and power are supposed to come from. I mean, I get that he’s powerful in the North because he controls the supply lines, but I don’t really understand how that makes him rich or powerful on a larger scale. As far as I can see, there is literally nothing of value in the Wastes, so while being the only man who can bring food and supplies into the frozen North gives you a lot of scope to dick with people’s lives, I don’t really see how there’s money in it. These people, after all, have nothing. A fairly major feature of the setting is that it’s a post-resource-depletion society, so there can’t be any fuel reserves or anything like that. I suppose there could be some kind of minerals or precious metals that people mine, but we don’t see any evidence of that either. As far as I could tell, Bane operates in an entirely evil-based economy. Like he seems to make his money primarily by being a dick to people. I get that the notion is that he gets to charge monopoly prices in the North, but surely that only works if people actually have something to trade. I mean I could be totally wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure that if you went on Dragon’s Den and said that your business plan was to buy goods from a place where everybody was rich and sell them at a markup in a place where everybody was poor you’d be told that you needed to seriously rethink your strategy.
Worldbuilding nitpicks aside, I did really enjoy Driven. It had a good mix of romance and action, and I thought it did a good job of integrating its love story into its wider plot. I think here it helped that the protagonists were mostly reacting to an overwhelming external threat, rather than something they could pro-actively pursue in their own time. When you’re basically hunkered down waiting for the next attack, you kind of might as well focus on your love life. I think it helps that Wizard and Raina aren’t just compatible romantically, they also ultimately have quite similar goals, and so it never feels like one of them is a passenger in the other’s plot. They’re both basically loners who have difficulty navigating their mutual attraction, but they’re also both survivors, basically moral people, and of course they both want to murder Duncan Bane’s face off. The plot moves naturally from Wizard and Raina’s first meeting, to their flight from Bane’s goons, to Ice Pirates, to rebels, to more ice pirates, to the final confrontation, with plenty of room for shagging in the middle.
Much like its worldbuilding, the central story arc of Driven is high on allusion and short on details. Raina is being pursued by Bane, Bane used to be part of some kind of military thingy in the Second Noble War, and this military thingy found a secret laboratory full of genetically engineered superkids, one of whom grew up into Wizard. It turns out that Raina’s emotionally distant, sort-of abusive father was also part of said military thingy, and that Bane’s entire vendetta against her has its roots in the military operation that uncovered the superkids. There isn’t really much sense of what was going on at the time, what this military thingy actually was, what the war was or who it was against. And as with the worldbuilding this is a mixed blessing. Ultimately these kinds of mysteries seldom have satisfactory solutions – Bane, Raina’s father, the New Government Order, the Old Dominion and the War are all such big presences in the text that actually trying to explain them would be both time consuming and a bit pointless. That said, it also means that the reader is left a little light on detail.
I found this particularly difficult when it came to Raina’s father, Sam Bowen. Sam – despite being dead – is an important feature of the narrative. Initially we only hear about him from Raina’s perspective, and he comes across as having been, not to put too fine a point on it, an abusive asshole. It’s tricky, because the Wastes are clearly a very hostile environment populated almost entirely by psychopaths, and so raising your kid never to trust anybody or to care about anybody except herself is probably quite sensible, but actively beating her just to toughen her up crosses a line for me from “making the best of a bad situation” to “just not okay.” Later in the story, we hear about Sam from Wizard and Yuriko’s perspective, and they clearly see him as some kind of hero. This was intriguing for a while, but I never felt we got enough detail about Sam for me to really feel there was anything heroic about him. I mean yes, he saves the superkids (in a sense, he basically delivers them from one prison to another) but that’s one nice thing. I’d been vaguely hoping for some kind of remarkable double life or a deep-seated connection to the rebels rather than a single encounter two decades ago.
I think what most bothered me about Sam was the revelation late in the day that because of something something genotype blood something something antigens, Raina had acquired some of Wizard’s ability to adapt to physical hardship. So when Sam was whacking her around the head to try and make her stronger he was, well, sort of right. I think strangely, I could cope with the setup as I originally understood it – that Sam was low-key abusive because he was a hard man who lived in a hard world, and that was just the way it was – because I felt like it was supposed to be ambiguous. It seemed like Raina learned a lot from Sam that kept her alive, but that he also kind of messed her up. By the end, it felt more like Sam was supposed to be an unambiguously good man who was applying a difficult but necessary regimen of physical training in order to put his daughter in peak physical condition. It lost a lot of the ambiguity for me, and in a strange way made Sam’s character less interesting.
Overall I really liked Driven. The plot, the setting and the characters came together really well for me. It was well paced, had lots of explosions and a completely over-the-top villain. Pretty rad.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Driven: In the future, tattoos will be illegal but personal plasma rifles will not. The exhaustion of our fossil fuel reserves will in no way impact the road haulage industry. If a girl cuts your eye out, you should probably let it go. What does not kill you makes you stronger, but only if you’ve had your genome resequenced.