The Burning Light, by Bradley P. Beaulieu and Rob Ziegler
New York City. The near future. Manhattan is flooded, some buildings still tenable, but many abandoned, rusted and moldy, full of squatters and junkies. Transport moves via watercraft. Worldwide, humanity relies on mind-linking networks to communicate.
And then there is the Light—an epidemic, opening the mind, burning bright; yet corrosive, leaving those who are touched by it emptied, addicted, desperate for more. It erodes its users’ ability to connect, making them reliant on joining groups, known as halos, to touch the Light together. And sometimes, it burns so bright that it kills.
Colonel Melody Chu was once touched by the Light. Her family was killed by that touch, leaving only her and her twin sister, who is now void of anything but need and want. The Gov collective that Chu serves distrusts her as reactionary, but uses her unrelenting drive to eradicate those who channel the Light. Chu’s white whale is a woman named Zola, who used to be a skilled navigator with a multinational corporation until the Light took her. Zola is a vector—someone who can channel the Light through networks, even though it isolates her in her own addiction.
Zola just wants to live her life, communing with others and the Light. But being continually hunted drives her to make a desperate decision, so when her losses grow too much to bear she determines to give herself up to the Light and let it use her to its own ends. As Chu and her troops pursue Zola through the decay of New York, they each must come to terms with what drives them and the cost that those aims demand.
The Burning Light is a small book, a novella really, that is packed with a lot of mise en scène. We are told very little, but we see and hear so much. Whether it be a description of a nighttime stakeout, relating a far-off memory, or merely the soft patois of the local speech, we get a mixture of that which is known and familiar, and that which is off-kilter and exotic. Take, for example, the first time we “meet” Zola:
East 17th Street, a narrow canyon of concrete, dangling vines, the rusty press of anchored scavenger barges. Scrap vendors cried their wares, those last bits of sellable flesh picked from the bones of the old city. “Copper wire, yo! Hammered clean, real pure, no zinc! Take a look, mama!” “Porcelain, porcelain! Granite and marble! Whole tons, ya, barato real! Make me an offer!” Later summer humidity hung thick in the air; everything shimmered.
Zola pressed her mind to Marco’s: Be there righteous fast, baby. We need food, ya. Then I’m home. Home. Nowhere, everywhere. Wherever she was together with Marco. Wherever the Light called them.
What is being said is new and strange, but how it is being said hearkens back to other literary voices: Dickens’ London street vendors, Margaret Mitchell’s plantation voices, other environments established by who fills the pages first, what happens to them second. The narrative even alludes to Melville and Biblical stories, crossed with tense military protocols and ecclesiastical euphoria. It’s an incredibly searing slice of a possible future brought quickly to life and deftly related.
My biggest frustration with the book is that my objective mind wanted to know more of what the Light truly was, and there was so little explanation given. I can understand why the authors did not get more specific—to do so could easily bog the narrative down, and the lack of specificity did add to the ethereal, almost otherworldly aspect of the Light. Still, it was harder to latch on to the “believability” aspect of the book with one of its major tenants being so ambiguous.
Yet there is so much to appreciate in this book to offset any unsettling ambiguity, such as the dynamics between characters: Chu and her sister, or Chu and her second in command, Holder; Zola and the enigmatic Bao. And even in such a slim book, there were secondary characters that captivated: the deputized thug “Captain”, the priest Jacirai, even the Moby Jah boys, “unified by mad beats,” ready to take advantage…
So while there may not be many layers to the quick reading The Burning Light, the layers that are there are sumptuous and enveloping. Go ahead—wrap yourself up in them.
~ Sharon Browning