The ALPHA trial, a review by Joanna

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The ALPHA trial

Lian Skaf

320 pages

Self-published July 12, 2022



This is a dialogue-heavy legal drama, about whether a young man with enhanced psychological abilities can still be considered human – or whether he should be put to death. I received a complimentary review copy from the author submitted to our blog. I didn’t know much about it going in, as there aren’t many reviews online, those there are being very brief and all generically positive. I was interested in the future setting, the medical aspects, and reading about people with psychic powers, so was expecting a medico-legal light sci-fi/speculative fiction type story. Instead this is all about a court case and the defence team working on it, and I struggled to believe in or engage with the plot or any of the characters. I think people who enjoy legal procedurals would be a better fit for this book.

This is the official plot summary:
“Andy Hartley is a solo attorney working on the wrong side of the Hudson River and he has his moral high ground to thank for it. The past few decades have been very lucrative for big law firms in major markets like New York City, raking in “med mole” money from one of history’s most catastrophic medical failures. Of course, Andy resisted the lure, opting to avoid the muck in exchange for meager returns. Due in part to his clean hands, Andy now has the chance to litigate the fallout of the controversial “Unlock” procedure with the highest stakes imaginable: his client’s life. Pushed through Congress and rubber stamped by the FDA, Unlock was a groundbreaking medical innovation that raised unfathomable abilities from brain cells that had previously laid dormant. Unlocked patients, referred to by many as “moles” for their propensity to meet in society’s shadows, accessed senses humans never could before and harnessed new propensities to overcome natural, human limits. It wasn’t long before the Unlocks went wrong as moles channeled their increasing paranoia into violence. Eventually, society fought back with the “Affirmation of Liberty and Protection of Humanity Act,” or ALPHA. A law written with the purpose of eradicating the unintended consequences of Unlock, ALPHA did what it promised, eliminating all moles. It wasn’t until years later that Jordan Semanter reappeared. Once just the fourth son of polarizing Congresswoman and champion of the Unlock movement Elizabeth Semanter, Jordan now has his own notorious identity. He is the last known living mole. The trial of Jordan Semanter takes society back to a time it was happy to forget and it’s Andy’s job to make the world remember. Andy has only himself and his hodgepodge legal team to take on Deputy U.S. Attorney Frank Guild – a former soldier and amputee survivor of the largest mole attack – and prove to twelve jurors that Jordan is more than a mole. Andy must prove that Jordan is human.”
Set in 2044, this introduces struggling Jack of all trades lawyer Andy Hartley, whose stand on refusing to do so-called “med mole” work cost him a promising career with a big firm. We eventually learn that he has personal rather than ethical reasons for his stance. Maria is the beautiful younger sister of the defendant, Jordan Semanter, who underwent the Unlock procedure as a child because his congresswoman mother had based her career on it. Jordan was not involved in the violent terrorist attack in 2032 that led to the procedure being banned, Unlocked “moles” being hunted and killed, and the deluge of legal cases against the physicians and bioengineering companies that developed the procedure. When Jordan comes out of hiding after twelve years on the run, Maria approches Andy about defending him from the ALPHA death sentence, believing that his background will make him the only attorney able to take on a vengeful prosecutor who was himself a victim of the ‘32 attack. Andy recruits an ageing alcoholic legal legend, a young Philadelphia attorney and his student law clerk as his team in a David v Goliath battle to prove that Jordan is still human, and deserves to live.
I tried to like this, I really did, and I did read to the end. The writing is good, apart from the author’s tendency to dip in and out of the present tense and use past indefinite instead of instead of past perfect when info-dumping, which I found repeatedly jarring. “You wouldn’t know it by hearing him talk, but Andy is originally from Long Island.” It also needed better editing to weed out some nonsense sentences eg “The real wave of Unlock their necks left from the beast.” (it’s possible these were fixed for the published edition.)
My main complaint is that for a book set two decades in the future, there are no technological developments mentioned at all – a world capable of developing the (initially at least) remarkable Unlock surgery doesn’t seem to have made any other advances. Characters drive themselves, take trains instead of flying cars (and have their tickets punched?!), use cellphones instead of smartwatches or inbuilt devices, and endure (multiple) hangovers – surely by 2044 medical science would’ve fixed that issue at least? This lack of world-building in favour of vignettes of random characters who are introduced to serve no clear purpose, and lots of dialogue, slowed the pace right down: this has taken me 16 days to finish which is unheard of for me, especially as it’s not a long book. The characters were not particularly likeable or well developed – they’re mostly borderline if not confirmed alcoholics, and the only main female character is a fairly insipid love interest for the hero. I also found the idea that a law allowing people who are victims of medical malpractice to be killed without ever having committed a crime in the USA fundamentally implausible.
Despite all of this, I was heading for three stars until I got the disappointing ending – arcs left hanging, a nonsensical twist, much left unexplained and no real payoff – so am rounding down from 2.5 stars. This is a real shame as I liked the premise. The author is an attorney himself – and clearly loves the law and the ethical debates that go alongside it – although does betray some cynicism about his profession “Being a lawyer is basically just about charging people to look things up.” If you have an interest in the American justice system, or enjoy courtroom based stories rather than thrillers, and wouldn’t be bothered by the issues I’ve raised, then do give it a try.
The ALPHA trial is available on Amazon now.

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