Intelligence Block: A Review

This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.

Next up for the SPSFC semi-finals, I’m pleased to present Intelligence Block, of the Talos June series, by Kit Falbo. 1001011, 1000110, it says on the cover. Think about it. It means 75 and 70, in binary. Why? Who knows? Shut up, that’s why.

This was an easy-to-read and enjoyable mystery / adventure on the (almost literal interpretation of) the theme “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. We open on a fun scene where our technomage protagonist, oops, not technomage, I mean party wizard with nano / military illusion stuff … attends a kids’ birthday party and performs some cool tricks.

From this intro we learn that the Wizard Joontal is essentially a social media influencer and an entirely fabricated persona who does shows and mage-battles and stuff for entertainment. His real name is Talos June, and he’s a twenty-something kid who never breaks character as the crusty old wizard in the public eye (which, in this highly-connected future, is just about everywhere).

When the Wizard Joontal is targeted for for-real killing by people blaming him for shit he did back in the past that essentially never existed for the made-up persona, Talos is flung into an ever-complexifying situation where he is forced to retire his livelihood and go into hiding as himself, in order to get to the bottom of what’s happening.

Now, I’m not sure if I’m just a big inattentive dummy and I missed it, or if the story really did veer away and go into something else and we’ll get back to the Joontal Murder Mystery part at some later book. But what I felt was a very interesting look at a middle-distant-future entertainment industry and evolution of LARPing, roleplay and internet celebrity (to say nothing of the mystery of the persona and its apparent haunted past), instead turned into an also-interesting bigger picture about the UIs and their sentience. If the shift from one thread to the other was laid out and I missed it, maybe it could have been explained a couple of extra times because a few other plot points were nicely-adequately explained and repeated, but this one passed me by entirely. Combined with the strangely abrupt ending of the story, it left me … unsatisfied.

In short, the UIs are artificial intelligences, the next evolution of the smartphone that most people have with them as a companion, data reference, and in the case of performers like Talos, a projection system for their performances. The story behind them, and – as it turns out – the main plotline of the book, is an intriguing one. When Talos begins sleuthing his way through the mystery of Joontal’s would-be assassins, and finds a deep-nested flaw (an “intelligence block”, if you will) in the UIs’ programming, it leads him down a dangerous road.

Falbo has some issues with apostrophes. They’re almost random, and reminded me of the greengrocer’s from Pratchett’s Discworld “serie’s”. It was occasionally off-putting, but there was nothing here a good editorial round couldn’t fix. And I loved the spin on the “school of wizardry” trope for the future entertainment and media industry, with a fun flavour of 21 Jump Street as Talos goes undercover (as himself) into an academic world he is well beyond, despite his tender years.

What we got from this fun world and cool setup was an interesting and page-turny sort of story, although – like I said – it pivoted unexpectedly and didn’t seem to pivot back, presumably saving the full closure for later on in the series … and it ended too abruptly without any satisfying closure. I don’t know if you can pull off an Empire Strikes Back as the first story in a series, but I didn’t hate that this was what Falbo seemed to do here. Just … be ready for it to not actually finish by the end. An over-arching plot that doesn’t get a conclusion is one thing, but this one felt like it needed a bit more of an ending.

I also don’t know if I bought any of the dialogue and chemistry between Talos and Lily, but this is where it gets very strange. He was her Jedi Master when she was a kid and he was pretending to be an old man, and … I don’t know what the fuck that sort of relationship dynamic would sound like when the disguise is dropped, but it’s not this. Somehow. The relationship itself was sweet and Lily was given some agency by saying that she always kind of knew Joontal was younger than he pretended to be, and their age gap in the end couldn’t have been that much so her apprenticeship to another kid also doesn’t make much sense … but I was still left feeling obscurely queasy about the whole thing. This is as good a segue as any to the sex-o-meter.


We practically open on sympathetic company funded escort sex, points for sex worker positivity and the de-tabooifying of sex in general. When we move on to Talos having sex with the kid he mentored when he was in disguise as an old man, I mean he was in disguise as he was teaching her, he’s not when they fuck, um … anyway, it got a bit strange for me, although the whole romance was really rather pure and uncomplicated, which I liked. No angst. Talos is barely twenty himself and no more than a couple of years older than her, if that? Like I was saying, I don’t get the timeline of when she was a kid and he was teaching her. It seems weird and implausible but that doesn’t belong in the sex-o-meter’s variables-bucket. At least Talos / Falbo kind of acknowledges the ickiness of it, although I would have preferred a bit more thought on that matter. Maybe even not fucking on the matter. But okay, it happened and it’s fine. I give it a Ren fucking Rey out of a possible Obi-Wan fucking Luke on the sex-o-meter. There’s no happy way out of this, let’s just power on.


There’s a goodly amount of magical tech gore and some (actually quite a lot of) incidental deaths, but it’s blurred a bit by tasteful curtain-drawing and the clinical high-tech aspects. There wasn’t much in the way of confronting gore here. Two gobbets out of a possible five.


What the fuck is Dimi’s accent meant to be? And what the fuck is up with humanity being an interstellar and teleport-capable civilization, but that whole tapestry was never really revealed or explained in any way? I know I love an info-dump a little bit more than the average reader, but this needed something. Intelligence Block gets a nuclear wessels out of a possible uwuclear wewels on the WTF-o-meter.

My Final Verdict

I was super duper enjoying the culture and mystery-action of this story, and the cute if slightly cringey relationship thing, and then it just … ended? They went to Freedom Station, as was more or less telegraphed from the moment the UI bug was revealed as the main plot related to the Joontal assassination attempts, and it just stopped there.  I wanted more of a conclusion and some kind of connective tissue, because I was left with an overwhelming sense of “this was really interesting but what was the point?” There were also spelling and punctuation issues throughout, which was a shame but didn’t really take me out of the reading. Not very often, anyway. Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.

About Hatboy

I’m not often driven to introspection or reflection, but the question does come up sometimes. The big question. So big, there’s just no containing it within the puny boundaries of a single set of punctuationary bookends. Who are these mysterious and unsung heroes of obscurity and shadow? What is their origin story? Do they have a prequel trilogy? What are their secret identities? What are their public identities, for that matter? What are their powers? Their abilities? Their haunted pasts and troubled futures? Their modus operandi? Where do they live anyway, and when? What do they do for a living? Do they really have these fantastical adventures, or is it a dazzlingly intellectual and overwrought metaphor? Or is it perhaps a smug and post-modern sort of metaphor? Is it a plain stupid metaphor, hedged around with thick wads of plausible deniability, a soap bubble of illusory plot dependent upon readers who don’t dare question it for fear of looking foolish? A flight of fancy, having dozed off in front of the television during an episode of something suitably spaceship-oriented? Do they have a quest, a handler, a mission statement, a department-level development objective in five stages? I am Hatboy.
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