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Book Review: “Synapse”


Steven James

Paperback, 384 pages

Publication Date: October 8, 2019

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Genre: Suspense, Science Fiction

As hard as it is for me to say, I have something to announce: I was not a fan of Steven James’ latest book. I have been a devoted fan for years, and “Synapse” is my 15th James book. I know his writing well and love it dearly, and I expected the same caliber in his newest release. James wrote an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this year addressing the same themes as “Synapse,” which got me excited about the book itself.

While the op-ed is good, the book did not deliver. “Synapse” is objectively pretty good, but it was not up to the same standard as James’ previous books. He deviated from his usual genre with “Synapse,” and perhaps some of my disappointment stems from that. He wrote a different type of book this time, and while I was initially excited about that, it did not pan out well.

“Synapse” takes a sci-fi approach to philosophy and religion by asking if it is possible for robots and artificial intelligence to believe in a higher power. James is no stranger to introducing philosophical thought into his crime-centered books, although thoughts of God and morality never came across as the primary focus. With “Synapse,” James seeks to explore these themes more deeply.

While that may be what he wanted to do, these ideas are not executed well. Jordan, a robot powered by groundbreaking artificial intelligence, wants to have a faith of his own but is unsure if it can be attained. I was really excited to see how James handled this subject, but it was overshadowed by the suspense element of the book, as other characters race to stop a bomb threat from becoming reality. Because of this, Jordan and his desire for belief are pushed to the background.

The main character of the book, Kestrel, is lackluster. A horrible tragedy befalls her at the start of the book, and this is sadly the most character development we get from her. Her attitude toward Jordan seeking faith seemed harsh and ignorant. I appreciated James’ decision in making his protagonist a female pastor, as representation like this is rare, especially from Christian publishers. However, Kestrel was roughly the same person she was at the beginning of the book. She refused to engage meaningfully with Jordan while he was searching for answers, which leaves the issue unresolved at the end of the book.

A federal agent investigating the bomb threat is the most familiar character in “Synapse” and brings to mind James’ series of crime novels. However, by the second half of the book, the federal agent and Kestrel become the main figures, and the plot almost entirely focuses on the bomb threat and whether or not they can stop it in time. At this point, conversations of whether or not robots have a soul are no longer central to the plot, and “Synapse” begins to feel more like James’ other books.

In order, I assume, to ramp up the tension as the book nears its end, James includes a countdown at the beginning of chapters, revealing how soon the bomb will explode. When I got to this point in the book, something stopped me. I had seen this before.

I had four other James books on my shelf, and I flipped through all of them. Every single one utilized the same countdown plot device I had found in “Synapse.” This discovery took me by surprise and made me realize some things about my favorite author.

Steven James writes crime novels very well. I feel like he tried to break out of that mold with “Synapse,” but he did not fully escape the genre. “Synapse” would have benefited greatly from a focus on characters, but this simply was not fleshed out enough to live up to what the book claimed it would be or my own expectations.

Paige Holmes is a senior journalism major from Topeka, KS. Reading is her favorite thing to do because it teaches one how to think, imagine and live. Paige believes there is no better way to learn something or be entertained than by reading a book. Her favorite genre of books is fantasy/thriller and her favorite book is ‘Opening Moves’ by Steven James.

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