Jack Driscoll, a 26-year-old former video game designer and secret society member, stands as the modern-day Roman god Janus—known for looking to the future and to the past—in “Shadow Knight’s Mate,” San Antonio attorney Jay Brandon‘s 16th novel.
From their home base in Denver, Colorado, members of The Circle, a secret society not made of merely pedigreed well-to-do members as in traditional secret societies, are the modern meta-influence whose work “guides the world into certain realizations” and determines the next U.S. president. Their operation—so covert none are allowed to become famous — means members take only temporary jobs lest they become overt and draw unwanted attention.
Jack’s high-tech skill, youth, and past relationship with Madeline, who may have been a member of the Inner Circle, a heretofore unknown core society, make him the target of their next assassination: “They may have similar goals to the original Circle’s mission, but they are much more ruthless.”
Though The Circle’s most prized secret is America’s “real history,” their operation is challenged by technology so advanced it comes in unidentifiable flashes across the sky: a fleet of metallic spiders with LCD eyes inject deadly poison into people at a mobile home park, a shower of silver and green cell phones fall into the hands of delighted children who succumb to a radioactive seed injected in their ear canals. When even the members question who might be behind these attacks, how can they avert war?
Jack’s journey takes him through a maze of U.S., Asian, and European cities and airports with fellow Circle member Arden Spindler, a woman so calculating he wonders if “she was the product of genetic manipulation [o]r possibly an alien being.” As the granddaughter of the Circle’s chair, Arden may be protecting him or supervising his every move. Jack lives in limbo as he travels, so he wavers between his respect for the antiquity of European structures and time-honored traditions and instant American design and impulsive tactics, especially in the virtual reality game world.
Brandon illustrates the contrasts of the traditional and the technological. For Jack, video games that rely “on strategy and cunning rather than violence” are superior to those that rely on weapons. However, Jack often acts fast and has little time to strategize when he is fighting himself: first, he discovers his doppelganger attempting to board a plane to impersonate him, and later he finds himself in a dark alley fighting a second look-alike (avatar? mirror image?) who drops a counterfeit identification card that reads Jack Driscoll. In another thwarted murder attempt, Jack and another video game designer fight against assassins who have the audacity to attack amid a crowded gaming convention in Malaysia.
Brandon relies on a framed structure, inserting parts of Jack’s exit interview with an unnamed interrogator. Each fragment reveals some clue as to the impending fall of a 200-year-old secret society as well as a nation overly dependent on technology. Brandon’s international thriller illustrates the paradox of living in a virtual reality, where even Dennis Wilkerson, the National Security Advisor, prefers to open his “desk drawer, take out his PS2, and look to see if his most frequent opponent was online” than execute real world military plans that could thwart a world war. However, the importance of life—thinking, philosophy, human connection—remain the umbilical anchor from which the characters dangle. In that context, “Shadow Knight’s Mate” forces readers to look, like Jack Driscoll, into the mirror—of one’s self, of the past, of the future—and question the blurred lines of reality and virtual reality.
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*Featured/top image: The Twig Book Shop. Courtesy photo from The Twig Book Shop’s Facebook page.