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The Hidden Layer by Chris Nordberg

Guest Reviewed by The Podler.

A digital oracle meant to predict the movements of the stock market, a man obsessed with finding why his brother had been killed in China in the 1980s, and a computer wizard cross paths when the system malfunctions and starts spitting out predictions of terrorist attacks. Such are the the basic ingredients of Chris Nordberg’s gripping if somewhat uneven thriller, The Hidden Layer.

The story begins in the summer of 1980 in China with the death of Robert Asher and another British teenager Emma Taylor. The unexplained death of his brother becomes the motivation for Asher to journey decades latter to China in search of any clues to his brother’s death. But China is a strange land and Asher’s limited grasp of Mandarin makes his quest halting. Through coincidence, however, he manages to make contact with the owner of the saloon in which Robert died and it is through this man that he learns the identity of the killer. But the man he’s looking for is in England, having emigrated there from China many years before Asher set foot in the Middle Kingdom.

Rachel is a brilliant computer systems architect and creator of Ceptron, a modern day stock market oracle. Unlike the ancient oracle of Delphi, however, Ceptron does not connect to otherworldly forces; rather, it is connected to the Internet, constantly searching for data input that will help it predict stock market movements. While trawling for data, Ceptron stumbles upon Asher’s website. Then, inexplicably, it begins to send him emails. Asher ignores them, mistaking them for spam. But Rachel’s life and Asher’s intertwine when Asher responds to one of the emails. The two meet and realize that Ceptron is able to predict attacks.

I found the concept of a computer being able to predict the future innovative and once its ability is revealed the story becomes rather suspenseful and filled with tension. There are, however, some aspects of the presentation that make the telling uneven. It seems to me that the thrill engine of the story is Ceptron’s ability and its creator. Indeed, the book’s most intense moments of suspense come when the fact that Ceptron can predict attacks is revealed. But we don’t get to this possibility for many, many pages. This brings me to another point. Asher’s quest to find those responsible for his brother’s killer starts the story, but then seems to take a back seat to the story that arises as a result of the complication that brings together Rachel’s and Asher’s stories. I found myself thinking—why not make that complication earlier? Why not hint at the story’s thrill center sooner?

The Hidden Layer is certainly creative and suspenseful as it is, but it could be more. Chris Nordberg is certainly a talent to watch and let’s hope that he writes another thriller soon.