It can be a distinct pleasure for a reader to discover an author that is new to you. There’s an element of risk involved that actually serves to increase the anticipation. Will the book be good, will it be terrible? Regardless of its quality, will it appeal? I picked up Psion Beta, written by Jacob Gowans, with minimal risk thanks to a promo that Amazon was running. But I likely would have given it a chance regardless; science fiction is, after all, one of my favorite genres for reading.
Psion Beta is set a few centuries into the future of Earth. Atomic warfare broke out between nations, and when it was all over the nations of the world united under a single government… and then split again, into two multi-continental superpowers that have been carrying out a cold war against each other ever since. Neither side wishes things to break out into an open war ever again, but both carry out covert operations in each others’ territory.
Into this conflict comes Sammy Berhane, Jr., a teenage street thief trying to get by in Johannesburg, South Africa. When his gang is targeted by the police for stealing pizzas, Sammy is cornered in an alleyway — and pushes his pursuers away from him using telekinesis. Not understanding what he’s done or how he did it, he is soon caught by the Elites, soldiers of the New World Government. He is informed that he is a Psion, and is given an ultimatum: He can either go back to the youth detention facility with his friends, or he can serve the government as part of Psion Beta, a training facility for young Psions.
Psion Beta is written at the young-adult level, and as such it is not a particularly complicated read. It is, however, a very quick read, and an entertaining one. It took me only three days to read through its 370 pages; suffice to say it holds the reader’s interest even if the reader is roughly double the target age group. To be perfectly honest, any young adult novel which can’t hold the attention of someone in their thirties probably isn’t worthy of being read by young adults either (see, for example, the broad appeal of the Harry Potter franchise).
Sammy is an interesting protagonist, having typical teenager ambitions but an underlying complexity due to his difficult past. Other characters don’t get quite as much development, but there are a few side characters who get a moderate amount of characterization and the rest usually get at least a broad strokes depiction. The book does use the common YA-SF crutch of having its protagonist be special even by the standards of his peer group, but this is easily forgiven.
Being the first book of a series, Psion Beta spends a lot of time building up the world that it is set in. However, it does so in a manner that is easily digested and absorbed by the reader. Only a few times are info-dumps given, and usually in a natural manner; otherwise, it uses the standard tactic of showing the reader new things by having them be new discoveries for its protagonist as well. The reader learns the intricacies of the Psion Beta facility as Sammy learns it, and Sammy’s training and interactions with his fellow trainees keep things interesting.
There is one oddity about the writing that is just a little bit jarring when first encountered. It is told, as with most novels, from a third-person perspective through a particular viewpoint. I.e., rather than reading “I did”, “I said”, etc., it reads “Sammy said”, “Sammy thought” and so forth… but it is exclusively Sammy’s thoughts which are shown and not those of other characters unless they speak them out loud. This is all well and normal, up until the last few chapters of the book, where the viewpoint is from a second character’s perspective intermittently. After 300 or so pages of exclusively Sammy’s perspective, it felt a little disjointed to suddenly be reading somebody else’s thoughts. An occasional interlude earlier on in the book might have helped to prevent this from being as jarring.
That caveat aside, Psion Beta is a fast-paced and entertaining novel. It keeps the reader interested in what happens next, and it establishes a world in which the sequels could create an exciting story.