Phantom Wheel by Tracy Deebs

Phantom Wheel Cover

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication Date – 16 October 2018


When six genius teen hackers are invited to audition for the CIA in order to receive an exclusive scholarship and job offer, five of them, Issa, Harper, Ezra, Alika and Seth, jump at the opportunity and create the code that is requested of them.  The sixth teen, Owen, walks out of the room, refusing to participate.  Later, when the other five return home they each receive a message for Owen, “You’ve been played.”  Owen has uncovered that the people interviewing them were not from the CIA; instead they work for one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies, Jacento.  Worse, the hackers’ combined code works together to create a virus, known as Phantom Wheel, which is a malicious piece of code that will give Jacento access to everyone’s personal data and unparalleled control of the world.  Determined not to let their creation be unleashed, the six teens band together to break into Jacento and steal back their code.  While they are young, these teens are among the most creative hackers in the world.  But will their combined skill be enough to protect them from a dangerous corporation with everything to lose?

Phantom Wheel is a fun young adult thriller that focuses on the adventures of six teen hackers determined to save the world from their unintentional creation.  This book has a cool style to it, some interesting characters and an intriguing story that features a lot of technological and hacker elements to it.  I only got this book a little while ago and managed to read through it pretty quickly, enjoying its various elements and aspects.

The author of this book, Tracy Deebs, is actually the young adult pseudonym of prolific romance novelist Tracy Wolff.  As Tracy Deebs, the author has created a number of varied young adult titles, including the techno-thriller Doomed; the mermaid based Tempest series; the superhero based The Hero Agenda series, which was cowritten with Tera Lynn Childs; and the teen romance series, Dahlia and Keegan, which started with her 2016 release The Secret Life of a Dream Girl.

When I first heard the premise of Phantom Wheel, I was intrigued and interested to see if the story could live up to the awesome-sounding plot summary, and overall I was fairly satisfied with the end result.  The story is told from the point of view of three of the main teen characters, Issa, Harper and Owen, and focuses on their fast-paced and exciting story of technological espionage and high-stakes hacking.  The plot moves quickly from the protagonist discovering what they had been tricked into doing, to them attempting a complex heist to steal it back.  I loved the heist scene, especially at the start when the protagonists split off into three teams, each with a point-of-view character, in order to obtain security items off three different members of the company at a party, especially as it allowed all the characters to play to their strengths during this sequence.  The sequences following the heist were also particularly good, as the protagonists attempt to escape from a horde of evil corporate security goons and the police by using their hacking skills to crash cars and stop trains.  I have no idea how realistic this is, but it was still fun to read about.  Overall the story is pretty fun, and has a lot of memorable moments.

The style of Phantom Wheel is also really interesting and has some great elements to it.  I personally really enjoyed the inclusion of the several different case study summaries of the protagonists that were scattered throughout the book.  These case studies also included amusing video surveillance files that follow each of the protagonists as they use their hacking skills to either get revenge or justice, or look at the characters having key conversations with each other.  I also liked the various uses of text messages and other electronic communications throughout the entire book, which fits in well with the technology based theme of Phantom Wheel.  The protagonists also speak a large amount of techno-talk and hacker slang throughout the novel, which gives the entire story a whole lot of authenticity.

Deebs has included six interesting and varied protagonists in the novel.  Despite the various first impressions of these characters, each of them has a lot more depth revealed throughout the course of the book, especially as they grow to trust the other members of their little band and open up to them.  Each of the characters has varying degrees of emotional backstory, which explains why they are the people they are and why they have taken to hacking, all of which is revealed throughout the course of the book.  I have to say I was impressed by Deebs’s inclusion of an asexual character in Harper, especially as asexual people are an under-represented group in modern fiction.  This asexual character seemed like a natural fit, and her acceptance by the group with only minimal questions or comments came across as a quite realistic and generally positive.

While I enjoyed the characters, they did at times stretch the plausibility of the book just a tad too much for my liking.  While I am willing to accept that hackers are just as likely to be in shape as other members of society, the actions that these teenagers were able to do, such as evading professional killers, fighting off trained security guards and jumping out of buildings, did seem a little ridiculous to me, and made me slightly question what I was reading.  I also found it interesting that four out of the six main protagonists were all members of rich families and had a huge net worth, one of them was even the daughter of a fictional Secretary of State.  While each of them had issues as a result of their wealthy lifestyle and the poorer characters of Issa and Harper balanced them out a little, even calling them out on their wealth, it did seem a little odd to include so many rich kid characters.  While this could potentially be explained away by the fact that hackers need money to pay for training and equipment, I feel that Deebs could have made one or two of them more middle class.  Still, none of these impacted my enjoyment of the book too severely and are easy to get around.

As a young adult book, Phantom Wheel is a good read for younger to older teens, although adult readers could also have a lot of fun with this.  The technological aspects of the book are quite intriguing and are easy to follow and understand, and will probably spark the interest of technically minded youths.  Readers will be able to relate to some of the characters in the book, and once again I have to point out my respect for Deebs’s great portrayal of an asexual character, as well as other minor LGBT+ elements.  With nothing too over-the-top in this book, it is a perfect read for a wide audience.

Overall, this new techno-thriller from veteran author Tracy Deebs is a fun and exciting novel that most readers will find quite entertaining.  Deebs has created a compelling story, used some great characters and installed some intriguing elements, all of which makes Phantom Wheel quite enjoyable and definitely worth checking out.

My Rating:

Four stars

Connect by Julian Gough

Connect Cover.png

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date – 8 May 2018


For those looking for a darkly complex and intense techno-thriller, look no further than Connect by Julian Gough, a unique novel that also critiques future trends and humanity’s increasing reliance on technology.

In the very near future, computer technology has been incorporated into nearly everything, linking the world and helping with all aspects of day to day life.  In Nevada, awkward young teen Colt is a talented hacker living with his mother, Naomi.  Seeking to create a perfect replication of the real world in virtual space, Colt has also developed a dangerous fascination with his mother’s biotech research.

When Colt submits his mother’s revolutionary work to a biotech conference, Naomi comes to the attention of the government, including Colt’s father, a high-ranking spook, Ryan, concerned with its potential implications.  However, Colt has also taken the opportunity to inject himself with the experimental biotech, turning himself into something new: a hybrid of man and technology.  Colt and Naomi are soon considered to be threats to the government, and Ryan activates an experimental defence network to hunt them down.  Colt and Naomi are forced to go on the run and must try to avoid a barrage of killer drones programmed to target and kill them at any cost.  Will Colt’s new abilities be enough to overcome the computer intelligence seeking them, or will the future of technology be changed forever?

Connect is an inspired new novel from Gough which represents a different direction from his previous writings.  Connect is a fascinating read and an interesting techno-thriller that examines the future of technology, creates a compelling dialogue and makes significant use of some excellent narrative elements.

The main story is an absorbing thriller that pits the protagonists against some sizeable opponents and threats.  One of their main opponents is an advanced and experimental computer program that is connected to every piece of technology in the country.  As a result, the protagonists are forced to find ways to avoid the overwhelming surveillance hunting them. Not only must they avoid pursuit from teaching devices and video cameras but they must also find a way to go low tech in a society that has computers connected to everything.  There are some great scenes where the characters are forced to out-think drones hunting them and try to find ways around the tracking programs that determine when and where to attack.  All of these play wonderfully into the book’s thriller storyline, and there is some real excitement when the protagonists encounter and attempt to counter these technological threats.

Gough spends a significant amount of Connect examining the future of technology and ends up offering some significant commentary on our reliance on technology and its potential influence on us.  The story is set in the immediate future, where everything is controlled by computers and certain things common in our current world no longer exist.  For example, most cars are self-driven, everything has become exceedingly automated and cash has become nearly obsolete.  In other words, it is a picture of how our world is likely to turn out in the next few years, based on current advances in technology.  Gough scrutinises how this over-reliance on technology could be detrimental to humanity, and how it could be turned against us by hackers and governments.  There is also an examination of the automation of a nation’s defence and security as an advanced security program is activated to hunt down the protagonists.  The debate around such a program is very in-depth, and the readers will be fascinated by some of the arguments presented.  Naturally, the program starts getting out of hand as it is manipulated into seeing the protagonists as a bigger threat than they are and it starts to dramatically escalate its attempts to destroy its targets.  This thought-provoking discussion and examination of the future of technology is a key part of Connect and will prove to be one of the most intriguing parts of the book for some thoughtful readers.

One of the most noticeable parts of the book is the unusual format that Gough has chosen to implement throughout his book.  The story is broken up into 12 chapters, and then further broken down into 149 sub-chapters, and is formatted in a way that vaguely reminded me of code within a computer program.  The inclusion of such a visually distinctive writing format does not break up the flow of the story, nor does it affect the reader’s ability to follow the story.  It does, however, dramatically change towards the end of the book in a way that ties in nicely with some of the significant plot elements occurring during this part of the book.  Gough has also chosen to include a number of relevant quotes at the start of each of the chapters.  I personally enjoyed reading those and connecting them to the plot of the upcoming chapter, and may prove to be more amusing to those of a more computer or technical mindset than myself.  Overall, the consistent use of this unique format and the attention grabbing quotes work well with the technology-centric plot and are a clever addition by Gough.

The point of view of Connect is mostly shared between the book’s protagonists, Colt and Naomi, although the main human antagonist, Ryan, also features in a few of the book’s chapters.  These separate viewpoints offer different subjects to the reader, and Gough has done a fantastic job of presenting unique content for both of his protagonists.  The scenes that follow Colt are a stimulating experience, allowing the reader a real sense of Colt’s social awkwardness and the disconnectedness he feels with the real world, especially when he focuses on his recreation of the real world in his virtual reality.  This virtual world appears in quite a number of scenes and plays a pivotal role in the end of the plot, and it is curious to watch Colt attempt to live most of his life within this world.  The characterisation of Colt shifts subtly after he injects himself with the experimental biotech and he starts to change.  It is interesting to watch his character change and mature after this point, especially as he attempts to initiate a very awkward romance with another young hacker.  The interactions he has with technology after this point, including with the advanced defence program hunting him, are some great scenes, especially as he creates and utilises some clever work-arounds to manipulate the computer networks to his advantage.

The scenes that feature Naomi’s perspective are significantly different, representing a noticeable change of pace for the reader.  Naomi is a very damaged person who presents herself in very different way to her socially awkward son.  Gough has made sure to communicate her multiple neuroses and issues to the reader, which adds a lot of drama to the story as she must attempt to save her son whilst trying not to get overwhelmed.  Like her son, she also undergoes substantial character development throughout the story, and the reader will enjoy watching her work towards a better relationship with her son.  In addition to this excellent piece of character work, the chapters featuring Naomi as the focal point are generally a lot darker and more adult.  For example, one of these sub-chapters features one of the most memorable and disturbing death scenes that I’ve ever read.

Connect is deep thriller that revels in its use of technological elements to create a distinctive and eccentric story.  Julian Gough’s discussion and consideration of a technologically advanced future and the problems this could create is compelling and thought-provoking, and his great use of characters and formatting elements turns this into one of the most unique pieces of literature you are likely to read this the year.

My Rating:

Four stars