Book Review: The Human Disguise, by James O’Neal

Sometimes you read, and really enjoy a book. Then you go to see what some of the other readers had to say and you scratch your head. You wonder if you just read the same book everyone else was complaining about? Surely they’ve confused this book with another, less awesome book. But sadly, that’s not the case.

That’s exactly how I feel about The Human Disguise. This is a really good book I think readers either misunderstood, or let genre bias influence their experience.

Let me explain. Many of the poor reviews complain that this book wasn’t Science Fiction-y enough. They felt bamboozled by a book set in a future United States where Hawaii has become its own country, all the borders are closed, there are several lawless quarantine zones to keep any number of refugees to bioplague victims out of the country. Guns that can melt anything they touch are being used to do exactly that. Oh, and a massive space ship with an alien delegation will arrive in four years. They also complained that this was more of a police procedural, rather than a work of Science Fiction. I just don’t get it.

How are readers going into a book with preconceived notions of what kinds of Science Fiction they expect? I personally go into each book hoping to find a good read, with an open mind. You know, give each storyteller a chance to weave their tale and enchant me. I think it’s unfortunate that other readers let any number of preconceived notions influence their reading experience, especially for a book so well written. Did I mention Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review as well? Well they did and this book is worthy of such praise.

The Human DisguiseAnyway, let’s move on to the blurb. From the publisher:

The world has been shattered. Disease and war have ravaged the Earth. A resurgent Germany once again threatens Europe, and the United States is engaged in the Middle-East while New York sits, an empty, radioactive ruin. The city of Miami has become a virtual prison, home to the worst life has to offer.

Tom Wilner lives on the outskirts of this forsaken realm. He’s what this future passes off as a police officer. With his family shattered, Wilner is just a pale version of the police hero he once was. When a chance encounter in a rundown roadhouse erupts in violence, Wilner is forced to step in.

His exploration into the violence of that evening leads him onto the path of two ancient warring races. They have been manipulating power and control on Earth for centuries, and are about to enter into a battle for ultimate supremacy. Unless Tom Wilner puts an end to their fury.

The star of this book is overworked cop, and family man, Tom Wilner. He’s a war veteran who happens to be in the middle of a divorce and trying to figure out how his marriage went wrong. He knows he shouldn’t be following his wife, but he can’t help himself. He really doesn’t like the man she left him for–notorious criminal, Tiget Nadovich. When Tom witnesses an exchange gone wrong, he is forced to act. Yes, you’ll find a bar shootout in the first few pages of this book.

Mr. O’Neal paints a vivid picture of a future United States. Money and resources are scarce. Criminal behavior doesn’t get you a prison sentence anymore, it gets you 5-10 in the military. War and the fear of terrorist attacks are constantly on everyone’s mind. New York City is an empty husk after a second, nuclear 9/11 attack. Even the alien vessel entering our galaxy is a constant, looming threat. The world has fallen on hard times, but her citizens keep on keeping on. The setting, particularly what was known as Miami and most southern Florida, is definitely one of the pluses of this book. Readers are treated to a rich, and fully realized world.

What I think makes this book memorable are the characters. Each one has motivations of their own which often clash with someone else’s. It adds plenty of tension which leads to plenty of action. Readers get to see the logic behind each character’s choices, why they do the things they do. I particularly found Tiget Nadovich, the supposed “bad guy,” to be one of the most fascinating characters in the book. Most of his life he’s been trying to protect his family and all of his actions, up until this point, have made perfect sense. Tom’s soon to be ex-wife, Svala, used to be Tiget’s wife. It turns out these two men have been on a collision course for a while now. The fully realized characters only add to the inevitable showdown, and overall story.

There is a whole other aspect of this book I can’t really talk about without spoiling the book. I can say the author does a fantastic job of not giving away secrets too soon. Readers are allowed to explore his new world and start putting two and two together. I’ll admit, while I had an idea about the “surprise,” I never really knew for sure. Mr. O’Neal does a fantastic job keeping readers on their toes trying to figure out what other forces may be at play. Not to mention who may be involved. I’ll give you hint: check out the title.

Would I read the sequel, Double Human? Hell yeah! By the way, it’s already out.

What I liked:

  1. How easily readers are immersed in a future United States. Things are different, yet strangely familiar. Readers could easily imagine a war torn future like the one presented in this book happening some day.
  2. The police work. I enjoyed following Tom as he pieced together a potential terror plot.
  3. The characters. Each character was worthy of following and brought something different to the table that is The Human Disguise. Each is fully realized and comes with their own set of beliefs and flaws. They were really well done.
  4. The subtlety of the twist. Mr. O’Neal takes this story to an unexpected place…in a good way. Readers are led to believe something may be different naturally, through the character’s eyes.
  5. The constant threat of war. Seriously, the US is engaged on multiple fronts. Criminals are sentenced to military service instead of rotting away in a cell somewhere. There are times where the threat of being sent to the military affects the character’s actions.
  6. The alien threat. We never really know if the arriving aliens are peaceful or not. I liked not knowing and having yet another potential threat looming overhead.
  7. The human element. The author challenges humanity in general with global threats–like war, plague, and nuclear attacks, all the way to the localized threats–like segregation, prejudice, and lack of resources (food, fuel, and basic necessities). Tom faces a more personal challenge as his wife leaves him for another man. He’s left to wonder why as he raises two kids and works full time. Readers are left to wonder what they would do after coming face to face with the reason their significant other left? It adds layer upon layer to an already great story.

What I didn’t like:

  1. The very end. I won’t give anything away, but I will say I didn’t believe it. Was it possible? Yes. Was it believable? For me, not so much.
  2. To me, the entire book felt like a prologue to a much grander story. While I enjoyed this book a lot, it felt like an appetizer instead of a main course.
  3. Tom and Shelby. Look, I understand a man has certain needs, but if he’s hoping to reconcile with his wife he probably wouldn’t fall for another woman at the same time. Their relationship seemed a bit out of place for me.

Overall: I’m giving The Human Disguise four out of five stars. Following a cop through a gritty future with plenty of action and suspense is always a fun ride. This book is no exception. Mr. O’Neal treats readers to some subtle, well done Science Fiction with a healthy dose of police procedural, making for an interesting, and satisfying read. If you’re looking for spaceships, laser guns, and aliens, you’ll likely be disappointed. If you’re looking for a good book with solid characters, perfect pacing, and story elements that keep you on your toes, then this is a book you should definitely try. I’ll be looking for the sequel and can’t wait to see where Mr. O’Neal takes the characters I’ve come to care about.

You can find James O’Neil by following this link.


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