Pulling Strings by Nick DeWolf

PULLING STRINGS is easily one of my favorite novels of 2017. Not only is it smart and meaningful, but it’s also fun as hell. It is a novel in that place where genre fiction and literary fiction blend, a novel you might see a literature professor and his or her student run into each other and discover they have something in common.

The synopsis goes something like this: Agent Colt has a psychic ability to fire kinetic mind bullets from her fingers. She’s a legend at the Department of Scientific Investigation (which doesn’t exist … but it could!), and she has led a storied career that the new recruits talk about in hushed tones. Now, however, she’s approaching retirement, working a cushy detail out of a field office in Middle America. It’s boring compared to her heyday. Then a new case comes in, and she thinks it could be her swan song. Little does she know the target she’s hunting is the most dangerous psychic she’s ever encountered.

PULLING STRINGS takes this fantastic-sounding premise and legitimizes it with heart and honesty. It asks readers to accept there are people who can shoot mind bullets from their fingertips, communicate via telepathy over long distances, cut through virtually anything with psychic bolts, tether human appendages with mental ropes, or control others with dominating abilities, and then after you’ve granted it such permission, it pays off with deeply human characters you care for.

It is a novel that is both familiar and unique. The overall bones of the story make for a recognizable secret agent mystery thriller, but with an alluring world and mythos surrounding psychics and so many tropes relentlessly body slammed on their heads, it claws out a special identity for itself.

One of the most striking aspects of this novel is how DeWolf handles elements of feminism. Where I think this really pays off is in the way PULLING STRINGS doesn’t make overt grand statements of gender roles and stereotypes. The story simply subverts them. There are no overblown, self-righteous, or self-referential statements about sexuality and culture. Simply, Colt is this stoic, embattled psychic agent, typical of the grizzled warrior, and DeWolf tells her story with no need for acknowledgement or apology. It is a meta-statement, in a sense, that PULLING STRINGS doesn’t just attempt to touch on stereotypes in gender roles; it shatters them, and the story we’re reading is years after the dust has settled on that particular fight

You could ask, “is PULLING STRINGS feminist literature?” I think, if this novel had a body, it would shrug and move on with its life because it just doesn’t have time for that question.

Colt is a hero who transcends cultural sexism. It isn’t so much a comment on it as it is a guide for how to tell a story in a post-feminist society. It isn’t only relevant today in American culture, where public figures seem to be tumbling from trees like over-ripened fruit. It will be relevant in the future when these themes are actually considered the norm.

Essentially, PULLING STRINGS is three storylines that run separately for much of the book. However, when they tangle with each other, that heart becomes apparent.

All of that isn’t to say PULLING STRINGS is just an intelligent work that evokes literary ideas about social topics and the human condition. It does that, but the book strikes a balance; it doesn’t forget to be fun, moving, and alluring. PULLING STRINGS is one of those rare works of storytelling that touches mind, heart, and soul. As it presents these characters who morph into real people you care about, it spins the world like a ride at an amusement park.

I love this book for what it doesn’t do as much as what it does. DeWolf demonstrates an impressive restraint and maturity. Beneath the psychic gun fights, the chase scenes, the mind control, he gets the core of the story right. Other authors that attempted to tell this story may have strayed and pandered. They may have come across as disingenuous or measured in their approach. DeWolf boldly walks the line and crosses the expanse to the other side without faltering or even looking down. It’s as if he’s done this before many times and it’s now routine for him.

If you’re looking for a story about a strong female lead character, or if you just like the idea of psychics and secret agents duking it out, or you’re down with both of those things, I highly recommend PULLING STRINGS.

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