I read his debut Rootless, the first in a YA science fiction duology (soon to be a trilogy) about a future world without trees, back in 2013. I was impressed by his originality of both vision and voice; he tells great, twisted stories in haunting, sometimes painful, but always beautiful language. If you haven't read Rootless and its sequel, The Rift, I suggest you do yourself a favor and track the books down right away.
Which brings me to Howard's latest, the near-future YA science fiction novel Night Speed. I've been eagerly awaiting this book since I heard about it last year, but I also harbored the tiniest bit of anxiety--like, "can he do it again?" anxiety. I didn't want to be let down.
I shouldn't have worried. Night Speed is brilliant.
Inasmuch as the book's about a dangerously addictive street drug, tetra, that gives its users a brief burst of superhuman speed and strength, it's tempting to say I was hooked from page one. But that's not entirely true, because it took me a while to appreciate the main character, Alana West, a teen who works for the elite Tetra Response Unit (TRU) to chase down the "breaknecks" who wreak havoc while high on tetra. To do that, she has to take tetra herself--which means she risks becoming what she hates. Like all tetra users, Alana knows the "rush" won't last forever; only teens can use it, because adult bodies can't handle the powerful stimulant. But she continues using tetra for two reasons: because she feels guilty about the injury her younger brother suffered at the hands of a breakneck, and--frankly--because she's as in love with the rush as the criminals she hunts down.
It's a gutsy move to tell this story from the point of view of a drug addict, one whose increasingly out-of-control actions are hard to condone, even if her initial motivation for joining the TRU stemmed from a desire to spare others the pain she and her family feel. Howard could have taken the easy way out and made Alana noble or pitiable or self-sacrificing--but he resists that impulse, choosing instead to get inside her addiction and understand it in all its ugly complexity. When Alana goes undercover to try to shut down the dealer who's flooding the streets with tetra, the gang of breaknecks she joins emerges as a cast of equally well-rounded characters, with their own reasons and rationalizations for their reckless pursuit of pleasure at the cost of their own lives and the lives of others. Alana might be the story's hero, but she's as damaged--and as damned--as the rest of them.
But that's the great thing about NIGHT SPEED, and it's the great thing about Chris Howard. He's not looking for simple "good vs. evil" stories or artificial uplift. He's looking for something much more messy: the beauty in the terrible, and the terror in the beautiful. If that's what you're looking for too, NIGHT SPEED will be your kind of book.
And if it is what you're looking for, then enter my contest to win my copy of NIGHT SPEED. (Much as I love the book, I'd rather share it with someone else than hoard it.) No fancy Rafflecopter form; just leave a comment telling me why you should be the one to win this book, and I'll choose the winner based on the best response. The contest will run for a week, ending next Friday. (U.S. only, I'm afraid.) Make sure to leave some way for me to get in touch with you in your comment. And even if you don't win, I urge you to pick up a copy of NIGHT SPEED. You'll be rewarded in ways that won't be easy or comforting, but I guarantee they'll be intense and real.