Review | Neon Leviathan – T.R. Napper

About the Book

A collection of stories about the outsiders – the criminals, the soldiers, the addicts, the mathematicians, the gamblers and the cage fighters, the refugees and the rebels. From the battlefield to alternate realities to the mean streets of the dark city, we walk in the shoes of those who struggle to survive in a neon-saturated, tech-noir future.

Twelve hard-edged stories from the dark, often violent, sometimes strange heart of cyberpunk, this collection – as with all the best science fiction – is an exploration of who were are now. In the tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Philip K Dick, and David Mitchell, Neon Leviathan is a remarkable debut collection from a breakout new author.

358 pages (hardcover)
Published on February 15, 2020
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I first ran across T.R. Napper when I was editing the most recent edition of Grimdark Magazine. I was editing his story and was absolutely blown away by every part of it. The story itself, the execution, the way Napper uses words like a sledgehammer. I’ve never seen someone use prose so carefully, so each word not only carried its own weight, but so fundamentally impacted how I read and enjoyed the story. I knew this was an author I could read over and over again, and so I took myself to Amazon to buy his books. 

I ended up picking up Neon Leviathan and starting it right away, and then pre-ordering his book 36 Streets, which I will start soon. 

What really intrigued me about Napper, and the reason why I tracked down more of his work, was really the prose. He’s almost a lyrical writer in the fact that some of his turns of phrase just sing. His writing feels poetic and rich, without ever really dipping into poetry. He makes each word count. There were quite a few times when I was editing his story when I just had to sit back and admire how he was using words. His writing is a unique blend of aggressive and beautiful, and it just worked for me on a fundamental level. I’ve seen a few people compare his prose to Richard K. Morgan, and I think that is probably a good one. Morgan’s writing always strike me a similar way: visceral, with a hint of raw beauty in the most unexpected places.

And that spark of his, that gift he has for an eloquent, visceral turn of phrase was not unique to that story I edited for Grimdark Magazine, but it’s a trait of Napper’s entire body of work. It’s one of the many elements of Neon Leviathan that sets this author head and shoulders above the rest. He not only knows how to tell an interesting story, he also knows how to connect it to his readers.

Set against a rich near(ish)-future world, Neon Leviathan tell twelve different stories, most of them set around the year 2090. These stories are loose and unconnected, and yet there’s an overarching narrative arc that each one helps sustain as well. This was another element of Neon Leviathan I enjoyed. I went in expecting a loose collection of stories with a unifying theme. I did not expect stories that not only stand alone, but also work together. 

This is, I’m learning, one of Napper’s best skills. He works on multiple levels, and often times I don’t quite understand the genius of what he’s doing until an “ah ha” moment comes along that is so profound, I have to put the book down and walk away for a while just to absorb it. 

The unifying theme in Neon Leviathan is that of a world on the brink. Things have progressed, and everything is out of control, from people to their private lives, to the political and global situation, to the relationship between humanity and technology. There’s a lot happening on numerous different levels from war to personal strife, and, through twelve different stories told through twelve different perspectives, we get to explore different dimensions of life in this world. 

This is really where those layers I mentioned come to play, because each story works on several levels. There’s the surface level, entertaining story, but that entertainment is often buoyed by some hefty ideas that Napper explores from numerous different angles. The relationship between humanity and technology is a complicated one with some surprising fallout, and Napper really gets in there and explores that space with visceral prose and interesting characters. Stories that feel real and possible. I often left a story surprised, not just by how much I enjoyed it, but how much it gave me to think about. 

The characters we read about here are the outsiders, which was an interesting and effective choice. The everyman, the washed-up has-been, the criminals who navigate the societal underbelly, those who operate best with gray morality. It allowed Napper to give me a feel for more of the average person, the average life, the ways we all choose to survive. These are the people who interest me, and the stories I tend to connect with. More, it allowed Napper to play with some interesting ideas with a bit more liberty than he might have otherwise been able to use. One of my particular favorites, was a person who got a memory reassignment surgery to deal with some extreme PTSD as a result of fighting in the war. Interesting story on the surface with a lot of hefty supporting themes. I love stuff like that.

I’m a sucker for cyberpunk and near-future SciFi, I will admit. The really, really good ones will not just entertain you, but show you a future that feels like a possibility, and that’s what Napper did with Neon Leviathan. He told stories that work on so many different levels. He explored a futurescape that was so thoughtfully wrought, it felt real. Through his stories, we see a landscape of dark possibility, and using his stunning prose as a vehicle, he brought it to life. 

Neon Leviathan was a lot of fun, but I was also almost overwhelmed by the author’s attention to detail, his ability to craft the perfect sentence for the perfect moment, his marriage of beauty and pain, his unflinching desire to go spelunking down the dark cave of “What if”. Mostly, what impresses me about Napper is his ingenuity and his cunning use of layers. I was never just reading a story, rather I was exploring an idea and Napper was the perfect guide. 

Neon Leviathan really knocked my socks off. Napper is an author to watch. 

5/5 stars