No one can legitimately accuse Marcus Sakey of formula writing. Each and all of his six novels preceding his latest were somewhat different from the other --- here a caper, there a thriller, here a mystery, etc. --- so that one never knew quite what to expect. BRILLIANCE, so appropriately named and surprising at every turn, is no exception.
Perhaps the book can be best classified as a science fiction thriller. It is not set in the future, but rather in the very immediate present, in an alternate universe that is almost a mirror image of our own “but for,” so to speak. The “but for” is the discovery of a small yet significant minority within the population known as “brilliants,” who possess particular (read: “amazing”) skill sets of different types and degrees, or “levels.” In Sakey’s alternate world, the existence of the brilliants is detected in the early 1980s. A screening examination was subsequently devised and administered by fiat at eight years of age when a child is thought or suspected to be a brilliant. The test is designed to determine the skill the child possesses and the level; those who are found to be brilliants are shunted off to “academies” for the stated purpose of developing their talents more fully.
"This is one of those great and rare books that has a large page count but reads quickly, driven in equal parts by characterization and plot as well as by Sakey’s own highly developed literary skills."
As we learn soon enough, this isn’t your “School for Gifted Mutants,” but rather a type of benevolent programming camp designed to isolate the brilliants and develop them along a particular path. The thinking is that, although the brilliants constitute a tiny minority of the population, their powers make them dangerous, thus they need to be controlled. One brilliant with the ability to predict financial outcomes upends the financial markets, resulting in the permanent closure of the New York Stock Exchange. The government’s reaction to this leads to a violent response from a small group of brilliants led by the enigmatic John Smith, and off we go.
This is an oversimplification of the setup for BRILLIANCE, the narrative of which is told from the perspective of Nick Cooper. An adult level-one brilliant, Cooper is one of the first generation of those discovered to have extraordinary abilities; his talent is predicting the actions of people by “reading” their almost imperceptible “tells,” which can be anything from eye movements to a muscle twitch. Interestingly enough, Cooper is a Federal agent with the benevolently named Equitable Services, which is tasked with tracking and killing a group of terrorists within the brilliant community. Their main target is Smith, who is wanted for orchestrating and participating in a series of bloody attacks, one of which is a restaurant hit on a U.S. Senator that includes the wholesale slaughter of everyone around him.
When a second attack occurs with devastating results, Cooper undertakes what is almost certainly a suicide mission, going undercover in a dangerous gamble to eliminate Smith permanently. It is not a sense of duty that motivates Cooper so much as a personal issue that prompts him to make a deal with the devil --- the head of Equitable Services --- and his painstaking journey across the country, accompanied by an unexpected ally, seems that it will ultimately bear fruit. Yet, when Cooper is on the cusp of success, he finds that everything he knows has been a lie. Racing against time, he tries, against almost impossible odds, to undo the harm he has done. But is he too late to save his soul, let alone those people who mean the most to him?
That question and its answer constitutes the crux of the novel, which is loaded with suspense from beginning to end. This is one of those great and rare books that has a large page count but reads quickly, driven in equal parts by characterization and plot as well as by Sakey’s own highly developed literary skills. Reading as if it is a cross between the X-Men universe and THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, Philip K. Dick’s classic science fiction work, BRILLIANCE will stay with you while it leaves you wanting more --- a wish that fortunately will be granted.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 26, 2013