Waypoint Kangaroo

by Curtis C. Chen

Cover image

Series: Kangaroo #1
Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Copyright: June 2016
ISBN: 1-250-08179-3
Format: Kindle
Pages: 312

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Disclaimer: Curtis was a classmate of mine at Stanford and part of the same social circle. That was a surprisingly long time ago.

Kangaroo is a spy (and, for this book, you should think James Bond). Agency training, fake identities, lots of gadgets, grumpy yet ridiculously competent support staff... the typical package. But Kangaroo also has a special power, which is the entire reason he ended up in the position he has. He's apparently the only person in the world who can open the pocket: a hole into another dimension, which can function as infinite storage and quite a bit more.

Waypoint Kangaroo opens with the tail end of a mission and Kangaroo in action, as an introduction to Kangaroo's first-person narrative voice, job, and the capabilities of the pocket. But the real story starts when Kangaroo is sent on vacation. The office is being audited, Kangaroo hasn't had time off basically ever, and his boss insists on a trip to Mars on the space equivalent of a cruise ship. No work. An expense account. Just relax and have fun.

Kangaroo isn't sure he knows how to not work. Or how to avoid boredom when trying hard to not work. It leads to probably ill-advised decisions like falling in love at first glance with the chief engineer, or going on entirely unauthorized spacewalks in the middle of the night. It's very lucky for him that the captain of this commercial cruise ship appears to also work for his agency. And it's good for his inability to stop working that there's a murder on board.

For a first novel, this is refreshingly free of a lot of first novel problems. It's lean, well-structured, easy to follow, moves right along, and doesn't feel over-stuffed with exposition or world-building. There's an interplanetary war in the past background, and of course a lot of loving description of the precise mechanics of the pocket and the tricks with momentum and retrieval Kangaroo can do with it, but the book never falls into too much explanation. And the plot is satisfyingly twisty. It's an action story plot, to be clear: don't expect deep puzzles or complex deduction. But there are enough players and hidden motives to keep things interesting.

The downside is that I didn't like Kangaroo very much. He's a bit of an ass.

Some of this goes with the spy novel territory, and some of it is good (if occasionally grating) characterization. Kangaroo doesn't know how to turn off the part of his brain that makes everything a mission. But his flippant, know-it-all attitude got on my nerves after a book full of first-person narration, and while (full credit to Curtis here) the romance in this book is clearly consensual and stays well away from the creepy romances so common in spy stories, the love-at-first sight bits and some of Kangaroo's awkward reactions provoked more eye-rolling than enjoyment. A lot of this is just personal taste, but that's the peril of books told with first-person narration. The reader has to really like the protagonist to spend a whole book in their head. If that relationship doesn't click, the supporting characters have a harder time salvaging the experience.

Waypoint Kangaroo avoids the problem of too many loving descriptions of guns, partly because it's a spy novel and instead has loving descriptions of spy equipment in a future that supports implanted devices. I think there was a smidgen too much of this, but it was within genre conventions and spy stuff is more interesting than guns. But (and I admit that this is probably idiosyncratic), it also had way too many loving descriptions of alcohol and one drunk scene. I don't care to ever read another book with a drunk protagonist (particularly first-person), and I care considerably less about alcohol than I do about spy equipment or guns.

That said, I still liked this well enough that I'll probably buy the sequel. (No cliffhangers; Waypoint Kangaroo is a complete story. But this is a character who could easily support a long episodic series.) The pocket is a neat gimmick, the world background is at least mildly interesting, and some of the supporting characters were excellent. (Particularly the security chief and the engineer.) I might even warm to Kangaroo over time if subsequent stories stay more on his creative fast-talking rather than his drinking and awkward romances.

I don't think this is quite good enough for me to recommend it, but if you're in the mood for a light and fast-moving first-person Bond-style story with science fiction trappings, it does deliver.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-10-25

Last modified and spun 2017-10-26