The Plague Forge - Jason M. Hough The second book of the Dire Earth Cycle, [b:The Exodus Towers|17262145|The Exodus Towers (Dire Earth Cycle, #2)|Jason M. Hough||23858943], ended with a slow, tense burn that continues into The Plague Forge. Skyler Luiken, the main character, now shares the spotlight with Tania Sharma and Samantha Rinn and all are on separate missions to retrieve the last three alien artifacts to complete the puzzle on the alien “Builders” Key Ship. Tania and Skyler’s teams deal with the ever present threat of subhumans and the SUBS disease, while Samantha, within Darwin, must steal the blue artifact from the cold and deadly Grillo and his Jacobites.

Initially, I appreciated the way the Jacobites, a cult based on Jacob’s Ladder, were unobtrusively incorporated into the story. I’m not fond of religious cults as authors often allow them to take up a lot of the plot with preaching and indoctrination. In the previous book, they did play a prominent role, which continued here as the official Big BadTM, but Hough did not bog the story down with their zealotry. The Jacobites and their leader, Grillo, existed as our heroes’ foil, and, while they did attempt to indoctrinate a few people here and there, it was not their prominent function within the plot.

Similarly, the characters of Pablo and Vanessa, Skyler’s new crewmates, served their plot function as efficient soldiers in Skyler’s new crew, but as actual characters, I would have liked to see them be more fleshed out. I never gained a connection with them as I had with Skyler’s original crew, no matter how often Skyler referenced them as “his crew.”

Otherwise, I really liked a lot of Hough’s characters, including some that were not meant to be liked, such as the deplorable Russell Blackfield. I’ve really enjoyed the insight into his character. When he was first introduced, he was the evil despot, but I loved that Hough allowed us to see more of him as the trilogy progressed without merely turning into a bad guy to be destroyed or redeemed. I respect that all the characters were very much flawed and the heroes weren’t necessary likable, while the evil despots weren’t necessarily bad, considering the circumstances. And I loved that Hough was not afraid to kill his babies. No one died needlessly, but it certainly raised the stakes to realize that any of them could die at any time.

As this was the final book in the trilogy, it meant that we finally get the answer to the question that hung over the entire story: What the hell do the Builders want?? Of course the heroes would obtain the three artifacts and of course they would put the puzzle together and meet the Builders, who were already on their way. But when I finally got to the answer, I was shocked by it and by the pithy perfection of its delivery. It offered the closure I needed, while opening an entirely exciting new door. Don’t walk into this expecting any sort of happy ending, considering the devastation the Builders have caused, but Hough left me with a bittersweet offer of hope and forgiveness that surprised me and left me in 2am tears.

With thanks to Netgalley and Del Rey Spectra for the opportunity to read and review an advanced copy of this book.

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