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The Velocity of Revolution by Marshall Ryan Maresca3.5 stars
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsMarshall Ryan Maresca is perhaps one of the most productive and most underappreciated writers in modern fantasy, with a creative output that matches his seemingly tireless imagination. While readers everywhere have been pacing the floor for more than a decade in anguish, wondering why George R.R. Martin or Pat Rothfuss can’t manage to get a new book out, Maresca has quietly released four complete trilogies in a span of six years, set in his vividly realized world of Maradaine, and he’s still going at a rate of about two books a year.

After finishing what he calls Phase One of his Maradaine saga, Maresca has opted for a change of pace, with the stand-alone deiselpunk action fantasy The Velocity of Revolution. And it’s one of his very best books, fueled by familiar themes but taking them full throttle down storytelling roads less traveled. You aren’t likely to read a fantasy novel this breathless and propulsive in any given year. Even its title is a stroke of inspiration, its double meaning referencing both the role motorcycles play in the story and the speed at which the revolutionary spirit can take hold when an oppressed people rise and say “Enough is enough!”

On the surface, this is the age-old story of the persecuted underclass taking the fight to their colonialist oppressors. But Maresca adds rich layers of worldbuilding detail and a deeply human cast of characters with complex motivations and desires, each of whom we come to know intimately, even if there may be a few too many of them for a 375-page novel. Maresca’s realization of the city of Ziaparr is so immersive that I still feel as if I could find my way around town simply by memory. As he’s done with Maradaine, Maresca has firmly entrenched himself in a long-standing storytelling tradition in which the city is the central character, in the same way that mainstream writers all through the years have set stories in New York or Paris or Rome that simply could not have been set anywhere else.

It certainly helps that Maresca has done the work of avoiding clichéd depictions of cities as mere backdrops, as so often happens in epic fantasy. Fantasy cities have a way of all seeming the same, their grimy cobblestone streets, dark alleys and obligatory taverns all drawn from the same faded blueprint. In contrast, Maresca makes Ziaparr a vibrant city absolutely teeming with life and generations-old culture, much of it drawing upon Latin American influence. Let’s just say that, as a Texan, any fantasy city with a taco truck on every corner is one I’d be happy to visit. The novel’s worldbuilding extends to technology, fashion, popular cuisine, even its characters’ sexual mores and ideas about family loyalty.

But all is not well in Ziaparr, in which an inviolable caste system holds the lowest citizens in the grip of crushing poverty while the city as a whole undergoes a process of reconstruction under the supposedly beneficent eye of an occupying Alliance government, in the aftermath of devastating Transoceanic Wars. Or at least, that’s what the regular propaganda broadcasts on the radio tell everyone, and not everyone is buying it.

Like Nália Enapi, a biker and mechanic of the jifoz undercaste, living in the slums of Outtown. We meet her in the banger of an action scene that opens the book, as she joins a motorcycle run to siphon gasoline from a moving tanker train. The jifoz and especially the baniz, the lowest and most miserable caste, are barely rationed enough gas or even food to keep them above a subsistence living, even though they’re the ones whose people make up the prison population sentenced to forced labor in the oil fields. But the run is apprehended by the Civil Patrol, the local police force, and Nália is arrested by ambitious young officer Wenthi Tungét.

Wenthi — whose mother is the matriarch of one of the city’s Prime Families, though he himself is only of the second tier rhique caste because of his late father — is recruited to infiltrate the biker gangs of Outtown in order to track down the location of the unseen insurgent leader, a mysterious figure somehow hijacking the signals of popular radio stations to broadcast calls to action. One of the tools at the biker groups’ disposal giving them a huge advantage is their use of a psychotropic mushroom called the myco, a drug that establishes a telepathic connection between its users and whose potency is greatly enhanced by speed. This has made them nearly impossible to catch, but, for reasons we discover as the story progresses, Wenthi seems to have a particular neurological affinity for the drug. With the very angry consciousness of the captive Nália riding shotgun in his brain for the sake of added cover, Wenthi works his way into the gang’s heirarchy. And as he does, he begins to discover secrets going back generations, and hidden agendas behind even those he’s meant to trust the most.

Maresca has an extremely busy plot here. At times, especially as events barrel towards the climax, it can feel a bit too much. (If there’s a scene in the book where things probably go a bit too far, it’s near the end where Maresca uses the character of Wenthi’s sister Lathéi to lob some easy satire about social media influencer culture.) But what’s commendable are the traps Maresca does not fall into. This is no simple story following the template where the agent of the oppressor, in deep cover, has a sudden, shocking epiphany about the moral outrages by the system he represents, and instantly switches his allegiances. The sticky thing about people in the real world is that everyone in any conflict thinks they’re the good guys, and even Wenthi, who had to survive alone with his young sister during childhood until their mother was able to recover them after the war, is still a believer in the system that has raised and indoctrinated him, even though his own mixed-caste status means his mother won’t even allow him to live in the family home. Nor does everyone on the side of the insurgency have saintly motives. Much of the story’s tension builds from the characters’ need to sift through multiple layers of deception from all sides before arriving at something they can call truth.

Also, I couldn’t help thinking that if this were a YA novel, Wenthi and Nália would absolutely have fallen into an enemies-to-lovers romance. Mercifully we’re spared such a cliché here. Speaking of the story’s approach to relationships, I should mention that the people of Ziaparr, regardless of caste, practice a form of pansexual polyamory that is — to put it mildly — as open and normative as it could possibly be. I don’t know if readers who themselves identify as poly might bristle at the equation of polyamory with what appears to be wanton promiscuity — because it really does seem like everybody shags everybody here — but that’s really not what’s going on. Maresca has tried to establish a society where sexuality is not merely open but an important component of in-group bonding. Just as Wenthi and his fellow officers of whatever gender freely get it on to celebrate a major arrest, so too do the insurgent gangs in the afterglow of a successful run bringing stolen food and gas back to their impoverished neighborhoods. None of the sex in the story is explicit, but its presence is prominent, and depending upon your own feelings, it may or may not be off-putting.

All the same, The Velocity of Revolution is an exciting and heartfelt adventure that deserves to be a breakout for its author. If only the world were a little more fair that way. But then, I suppose that’s why we have revolutions.