⭐ ⭐ ⭐ / ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Brains are disappearing from the secret lab under the Library of Congress as powerful groups try to recreate the minds of influential leaders while unscrupulous scientists want the specimens for other, more profitable reasons and an off the books CIA team tries to stop them both in the latest from Jarol V. Yarnmeel.

Initially scientists merely wanted to study the brains of extraordinary people to see if what made them so could be quantified. Then as the sudden appearance of advanced A.I. leads to a discovery of “artificial brains” being grown in labs across the world and passed off as “proprietary algorithms” one raided funeral parlor turns up evidence of adults receiving lab-grown brain transplants. Schools where young adults discovered to be “mindclones” of famous (and infamous) innovators and leaders such as Lincoln, Franklin, Tesla, Edison, and Einstein are trained are turning up in parts of Europe. These students get immersed in the fields of their “trues” to facilitate a more organic, and thus more stable recreation; each “true” is unique, however, in ways other than simple random differences: some are genetically altered to introduce or suppress traits.

These changes can enhance certain aspects of the subject but they can also lead to failure. The so called “fails” are rounded up and repurposed in some way and the experiment begins again. There’s no shortage of new subjects as they number in the thousands, all of them in suspended animation; fodder for the living; fodder for the free. Are they slaves even as they sleep in stasis tanks or only when they are awakened? Do these future and former vessels have souls or are they truly nothing more than skin and bone suits devoid of lifeforce once they have served or failed to serve their purpose?

More interesting still are Yarnmeel’s “chimeras,” his shaken not stirred interminglings, where more than one personality are merged into a single brain. Imagine Einstein with Rommel’s battlefield cunning, or a combination of Ben Franklin with Nikola Tesla. When these beings are then genetically manipulated they can become much more than what they once were, even ferocious killing machines.

Some interesting questions are raised, such as whether these “trues” are themselves unique individuals with rights or merely properties of the lab/corp/gov that currently owns them. Can a society be considered lawful if it commits human rights violations? What about murder? Would people who received brain transplants retain their humanity; what does it mean to be human and is that for sale?

Though little time is spent on these larger philosophical and moral debates, they nevertheless permeate the work and inform the characters and their actions. Their motivations are different but each side is equally committed to their cause, right or wrong, and while the author steers clear of any judgement we as readers are not so fortunate. It’s difficult not to want the barbaric profiteers to be stopped and punished even if their experiments are fascinating and could ultimately benefit mankind. What lengths can a “hero” resort to and still be considered just?

Yarnmeel kept writing through rehab after a cycling accident in 2017 and even found time to get married. Sticking to the horror thriller genre has proven successful for the author, but so far at least, each novel has been uniquely its own while still seeming a tad familiar. Even if they’re not the best written of their kind, they are at least entertaining and crisply paced. In “Brainleak,” there are no long expository or stats fetishizing passages; no superfluous character bios or revealing soliloquies. We are simply dropped in the middle of a full blown criminal enterprise/conspiracy/investigation and off we go.

Ignoring the lure of the procedural by “showing” (as opposed to “telling”) all three sides as groups in action instead of as individuals with free will, and thereby reducing the role of the individual, the book also avoids assigning any moral blame or even finding any deeper motivations than what we learn in the first few chapters. Characters don’t need to grow if what we don’t know about them is already large enough. The narrative moves quickly, carrying us along as we learn more and more of the truth and each side comes together for what seems to be mutual self destruction.

Brainleak” is a fine read that will keep you guessing but won’t stress you out in the process; it’s good-not-greatness more of a compliment than a shortcoming. It’s a fairly complex story written in a very approachable way that manages to engage if not amaze, staying at least a half step if not one whole step ahead.