Six Wakes is a smart, fresh, fast-paced whodunit. With clones. In space. The story starts with six clones waking up in a bloody mess and all of them with no memories of the last twenty-five or so years of their lives as the skeleton crew of a generation ship. The rest of the book alternates between the crew’s present day investigations to out what happened to them and flashbacks that show their history and allow the reader to slowly put the pieces of the puzzles together. It’s a clever construction that makes world building and character development equal priorities while never sacrificing entertainment value or readability. Mur Lafferty delivers diverse and compelling characters, a great series of twists and turns, and a satisfying conclusion with space for a sequel or simply for other books in the same setting. Which I will certainly read if they are forthcoming.
The ensemble cast is for the most part well-balanced. Each character has a strong and distinctive personality and an interesting backstory, and it’s fascinating to watch them slowly orient themselves around each other and piece together the relationships and connections between them. Maria Arena, mentioned in the cover copy of the book, definitely takes center stage, however, and her story turns out to be the glue that holds the rest together. None of the characters is particularly likable, though Maria and Hiro are probably the closest thing we’ve got to true protagonists. For most of the book, all the characters are at odds with each other, each one suspicious of the rest, traumatized by their experiences, and deeply unsettled by the memory loss they’re all suffering from. All of them are keeping secrets from the others, and their individual stories delve more deeply into what they have to hide, explaining some of their histories as clones and how they ended up on the Dormire to begin with.
Lafferty does a great job of metering out information to the reader, though there is a tendency towards intermittent infodumping throughout the novel. Revelations, when they come, are often sudden and quickly realized by the characters, and the reader is forced to keep up with the sometimes-blazing pace of exposition. I’m not always a fan of this sort of twist-a-minute style of storytelling, but Lafferty pulls it off here with great panache. The cycle of paranoia, tension, and revelatory payoff makes for an almost un-put-downable story that doesn’t offer many natural points at which to take a break. That said, a couple of major reveals in about the last quarter of the book were pretty heavily telegraphed early on, and I felt more than once that I was more meant to be shocked than actually surprised by certain turns of events. Still, even the more predictable parts of the book were well-done and not so hackneyed as to truly diminish my enjoyment of it. Rather, they were pleasantly comfortable and reassuring; there’s a reason that some tropes appear time and again in fiction—because they never do quite get old.
The mechanisms of cloning and the society built upon cloning technology that Lafferty imagines aren’t even remotely unique, but her in-depth treatment of the ethics and ideas surrounding cloning is nevertheless highly thoughtful and more than moderately insightful most of the time. Six Wakes offers a plausible imagination of the future and a thorough examination of how advanced cloning—of the functional immortality kind—might work in practice, both for the individuals who partake in the practice and the broader world that must change to accommodate them. On the other hand, there are some oversimplifications of issues, a little bit of handwaving about the actual science of it all, and a somewhat strange deus ex machina to help end the story that could have been handled a little better. Still, none of this is deal breaking stuff, and even the slightly weird ending manages to be charming as opposed to irritating.
Probably, a nit-picky reader could find plenty to criticize about Six Wakes, but none of the nits I can think of in it are the ones I would choose to pick at. It’s a nicely written character study with some interesting ideas about the future, and Mur Lafferty has a flair for drama that is perfectly suited to this sort of Clue-style mystery. I wasn’t shocked by the way things turned out at the end of the book, but I didn’t really expect or want to be. Frankly, what I appreciate most about Six Wakes might be its total lack of cynicism or pretension. Lafferty sets out to entertain the reader and provoke some thought, and she succeeds marvelously on both counts without overstaying her welcome. Six Wakes stands alone perfectly, but I’d be glad to read about what happens to these characters next. Failing that, I’ll be looking forward to whatever Mur Lafferty does next.