Book Review: The Stray

The Stray is a thought-provoking, short Science Fiction novel from debut author Jason M. Ford. This book was released via an independent publishing house out of Nashville, TN called De Novo Press, that specializes in providing debut and new authors a platform and partnership to amplify their work and make sure it is able to be seen by the world.

A disclaimer before I get started with this review. I love De Novo Press. I love what they are doing and I fully support and believe in their mission. Hopefully, they will be successful and help launch the careers of the next great authors. I have nothing but support and admiration for everything they are doing. That being said, I tried to not let those feelings impact my review. I wanted to keep this review impartial and not have my appreciation for this publishing project reflect my thoughts on this book. To see more about De Novo Press (and I highly recommend you check them out), head here: https://www.denovo.press/mission

I finished reading this book over two months ago but didn’t think to review it at that time. So I might be a little iffy on some of the finer plot points. But the fact that I still remember how this book made me think and feel two months after I finished is a pretty good sign.

As is true of pretty much every single book I’ve ever read, there are aspects of this book that I really enjoyed and other parts that I didn’t.

Plot

This book is short. That could be considered a plus, as it’s not a daunting task to read it at all (in fact, I think it only took me a weekend to get through it), at the same time we spend less time with these characters and the story doesn’t get to slowly unravel. It’s pretty much petal to the metal from the word “go.” It’s a drag race in the Sci Fi genre that usually focuses on slowly unwinding plots.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. For some people it might be, for others it might be a good thing. It’s just a thing.

Because of that, I enjoyed the pacing of this book quite a bit. There was always something going on, always a plot point to pay attention to. The plot advanced on almost every page. It kept you wanting to read more because something was always happening.

But, at the same time, I don’t think the plot had enough time to breathe before we reached the major development. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but we see a glimpse of the world before Ethan, the main character, is placed into this sleep study that is the main point of the plot. I wanted more of the pre-sleep study world. I wanted to wallow in Ethan’s feelings towards his strange AI-inspired dystopia (or is it a utopia? Depends on who you ask).

The actual plot was really fascinating. This book is one that leaves you thinking for a while.

Pretty much all of sci fi is incestuous: science fiction borrows from other science fiction stories. That is what happens. It is almost impossible to have a work of sci fi that doesn’t borrow from Asimov at least and many other science fiction stories besides. Obviously, that happens in this book. And it should not be considered a point against this book. Saying that this book has elements inspired by other works of science fiction is just another way of saying that this is a science fiction book.

All of that being said, this plot has truly unique elements that I don’t remember seeing in science fiction before. It focuses heavily on AI and the dangers implicit therein. It also uses 3D printing in a fascinating way. Parts of this story were truly unique and that is always refreshing to see in Sci Fi.

The most important and interesting part of this plot is the way it makes you think and what it pushes you to think about. All good Sci Fi is thought-provoking, forcing the reader to examine possibilities of the future, and this book does that in spades.

Overall, I think the plot is a highlight of this book for sure.

Characters

But then we get to characters and I think that was a lowlight of this book. However, that’s not saying much because Sci Fi is notoriously unconcerned about character development. Traditionally, the genre focuses on plot and, well, science to the detriment of interesting and deep characters. This book is no exception to that stereotype.

Some of the characters were interesting and we got to see them in a strange situation that added a unique lense to their characters. The love interest and the best friend were characters that I really enjoyed and that I thought were great additions to the story.

However, I never felt fully connected to the main protagonist. He sort of seemed like a character that existed so the story could have someone to happen to. And, again, that isn’t exactly uncommon in Sci Fi. I don’t think fans of traditional Sci Fi will have any issues with the protagonist’s development. But I’ve been reading a lot of epic fantasy – thousand page books with plenty of real estate for characters to grow and arc in massive ways. Reading this book was a change of pace.

Also, there were two scientists who could have been combined without losing anything. They seemed to fulfill the same purpose and it didn’t add anything to the story to have both of them.

Overall

In my opinion, good Science Fiction needs to achieve two things. For one, it must make the reader think and examine aspects of technology and science, see the possibilities and potentialities of the future, and consider what, if anything, needs to be done with that knowledge. The other thing it needs to do is tell a pretty good story.

Ford accomplishes the first rather easily. The Stray is a book that will make you think – and it makes you think about an element of technology that isn’t often the focus of Science Fiction. After reading The Stray, you’ll still be thinking months later about things the book brought to your attention.

But I can’t say that it fully accomplished the second point. I loved the world, I loved the concept, but a few things fell short for me from a story perspective. I enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it, especially to someone looking for an introduction into a more classic style of Science Fiction. But it wasn’t one of my favorite reads of the past year.

However, I am very excited to see Ford’s future as this book clearly shows he has great ideas and I’m excited to see what De Novo Press releases next as they’ve clearly shown they understand potential and are dedicated to releasing quality products (the actual physical product of the book was far better quality than I expected from a small, indie publisher).

It’s hard for me to give this book an overall rating, but if I was forced into it, I’d put it somewhere around 3.5 stars out of 5.

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of The Stray by Jason Ford for yourself, check it out on the De Novo Press website: https://www.denovo.press/the-stray

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