The Power of Two
The 2176 series is finally back with another exciting installment in Patti O’Shea’s aptly-named The Power of Two.
The title refers to the unique relationship shared by its hero and heroine. As part of an army experiment, they became a “Quandem,” each installed with brain implants that lets them interact mentally and across great distances. Cai Randolph is the female half of the team. Able to access computer systems using only her mind, she remains at the command center and feeds her partner information on his missions. Her partner is Jake Tucker, a tough military officer who has come to depend on Cai to save he and his men in more than one life-threatening situation. After working together for years, they have a unique closeness. But they’ve never actually met in person, and Cai knows that Jake believes she is actually a computer herself, one programmed to emulate a human female. Unable to find the words to tell him, she let the misunderstanding continue.
Cai soon has to end the charade when she learns that she is to accompany his team on its next mission. They’re being sent to the Raft Cities, a floating metropolis located where the Maldives are today that is primarily home to pirates and mercenaries. This time Cai can’t do her job from afar. She needs to get close the computer she’s being sent to infiltrate. Cai has very personal reasons for wanting to go on this mission. Years ago, her scientist parents disappeared and were declared dead by the government. Cai has reason to believe that they’re very much alive and being held captive in the Raft Cities. Determined to find them, she wants more than anything to go to there. But first she has to reveal the truth to Jake and convince him to approve her for the mission.
As expected, Jake is shocked to learn that the voice in his head doesn’t belong to a computer, but to a flesh-and-blood woman. Though he eventually learned to block her access to his mind when he wanted some privacy, Cai had been present to some of his most intimate thoughts and moments. He can’t help but feel betrayed by someone he considered a friend. Then his commander reveals that part of the reason Cai is being sent on this mission is because she might be in danger from someone targeting her through her implants. Jake is needed to keep her safe. Protective toward the partner he’s worked with so long, he agrees to take her with him. But as they travel to the Raft Cities, new feelings develop between the old partners and they start to look at each other in new ways.
This is a sharply-written adventure tale that was definitely worth the wait since the last book in the series. The author’s very detailed depiction of this futuristic Earth really brings it to life, adding new dimensions to the world established in the previous books (although this one does very much stand on its own). The computer elements add an extra SF aspect to this installment. It all feels very vivid and realistic in O’Shea’s hands, like being fully immersed in a world as believable as our own. That’s exactly what a futuristic should do, and the author pulls it off.
Strong characterizations also help this stand out as one of the better books in the series. Cai was a childhood prodigy who attended school with kids twice her age. They resented her and mocked her for her appearance. As a result, she has always believed that she’s homely (an oddly old-fashioned word for a futuristic world), and she greets Jake’s attraction toward her with near disbelief. She also has a nicely different ethnic background, being part Vietnamese. The author builds a layered portrayal of a woman with both strength and insecurities, who’s both very intelligent and capable of fending for herself physically. Jake is somewhat less interesting, if only because this kind of military character is one most readers have seen before. But he also has a unique history that is eventually brought to light. They have a very special relationship, and it’s intriguing to watch how they interact with each other through the bond they share. They share a good rapport. With the exception of one misunderstanding that feels somewhat overblown, it’s an appealing and well-developed romance.
I nearly gave this book a B+, but I did think the first half of the story was better than the second, when it started to lose some steam. There were also some slow spots, mostly in that latter half. But what’s good about it is quite excellent. Great characters and wonderful world building make The Power of Two a fascinating read. For a multi-author series, there has been a remarkable steadiness in the level of quality. This book is no exception.