Val's Book Reviews

The Wickedest of Things

by Russel Barrie

Kamloops: Russel Barrie Books, 2023
$24.00 / 9781738060701

Seeing a strong opening line like “The first time Reid died it was downright embarrassing,” you imagine you’re in for an intriguing read.

As you read on, you realize the protagonist Reid Sheraton is playing a video game because he “dies” a few more times before the game ends. It is a good opening to a stimulating plot, and gamers in particular will be quickly drawn in.

Kamloops’ Russel Barrie is an excellent writer and produces some strong characters and provocative descriptive passages in The Wickedest of Things, his first full-length novel. 

My main criticism of this book, however, relates to its size. I feel that if the book had been handled by a publisher, an editor would have cut it in half. As a first novel by a self-published author, the scenes tend to ramble on with far too much dialogue. Perhaps the reader should have been allowed to imagine some of what was said or done instead of being told it all in meticulous detail. In addition, the cover design could have been brighter. The vertical title and black background do very little to invite readers.

Despite these drawbacks, the storyline is addictive. It centres on Reid Sheraton. He’s looking for a challenge to distract him from a painful past. And there’s the mysterious Esin Shirzai, a woman who wants him for her team at Horizon Corporation, the company that recently bought Reid’s gaming enterprise. As his new boss Esin has plans that Reid cannot fathom.

Every year Mr. ‘Fozzy’ Fozeranski, the owner of futuristic technology giant Horizon, challenges his employees to become the best they can be. To do so, they must form teams and attempt the far-fetched trials and puzzles Fozzy has invented in the Labyrinth, an elaborate venue situated in the depths of a mountainside outside of Vancouver. 

In the current year, Esin is determined to win; she needs Reid with his photographic memory and puzzle-creator ability to help her. The more Reid sees and hears about his new job at Horizons and the reason he’s been chosen, the more convinced he becomes that the challenge is what he’s been looking for.

Barrie outlines Reid’s past tragedy in an early chapter. The author brilliantly describes the pain Reid feels in every room of his apartment, remembering his beloved wife, Renata, who was killed five years earlier in a car crash. He was the driver, and is unable to obliterate the memory of that last scene from his mind. Creating video games has not allowed Reid to forget and move on. Barrie’s strong descriptive passages (such as, “the image of her hair intermingled with the glass tore into his consciousness and slapped his nostalgic mind back to the present”) are overwhelmingly realistic.

Author Russel Barrie

All of Barrie’s characters are fascinating and by the time they reach the Labyrinth, readers will find themselves attached to them all. They will soon become aware of the attraction growing between the beautiful Esin and the somewhat remote Reid. And readers will love the affection between Esin and her elderly boss, Fozzy, who she regards as a father. They will admire Robin, Esin’s assistant, and dislike Wyatt, another VP in the company, while laughing at the foibles of Aster, the creative genius in the Artificial Intelligence department. And they will enjoy the friendship between Esin, Sasha, and Lara—all part of Esin’s team.

But perhaps the greatest affection will be for the gentle, robotic Acesco, created by Aster and Wyatt in AI. Acesco has been introduced to the press as a robotic medic that will be able to go into the battlefield and treat and rescue wounded soldiers. The robot will be a revelation to the world and a boon for the Horizon Corporation.

Acesco will accompany the teams entering the Labyrinth to offer medical assistance should anyone need it. The night before the team leaves, a traitor in the workforce tampers with the gentle robot, and therein lies a horrific story of despair ahead.

Regrettably, the last few chapters in Barrie’s book are notably repetitive and could have been pruned. This section could have built up to the extremely exciting climax sooner—which speaks to my original criticism of book length. Despite this pacing issue, many readers will enjoy this riveting story of technology that goes horribly wrong. It is a frightening scenario that the author expertly offers to his readers and is well worth the read.

The Wickedest of Things is a futuristic look into an Artificial Intelligence world of cars and robots that talk and understand instructions—but are without emotion. It is factually real in concept and the amount of research the author must have done is astonishing to a layperson. 

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