Cover of Ketcel by Chad Deal

Some stories are just that: stories. Simple. One dimensional. Easily digestible entertainment.

Some stories are much, much more than that. Some are complex conductive elements comprised of dozens of vibrant, glowing fibers, woven together specifically to guide us into the psychedelic cyberpunk future that might be.

Chad Deal’s Ketcel is the latter.

In a future where US citizenship is a subscription service and those with lapsed documentation are promptly deported over the border into “Limbo,” a hellish labor camp where criminals and former citizens can work off their debt in the manufacturing plants and warehouses of the Baja Autonomous Zone, a series of seemingly unrelated glitches brings together a colorful cast of characters.

Jaded retiree Don Collins paid a mule to smuggle him to Tijuana for a cheap medical operation. After a series of inexplicable miscommunications brand him as a “runner” attempting to flee from his medical debt, Don finds himself marked for death on the open world life-or-death gorecast Toreros y Alarmas!

Sarcastic livecast journalist Luna Teschner is welcomed to her new job, and swiftly given the green light to pursue the assignment “she” pitched– only the assignment to livecast the brutal conditions inside Limbo’s Maquilandia work camps isn’t one she’s ever heard of.

Kervens Dessalines, Tijuana’s Haitian police captain, has a softer side and a taste for designer hallucinogens. When the comfortable confines of Kervens’ virtual life begin to unravel, he discovers himself unexpectedly hitchhiking in the body of a woman who may or may not be real.

And something– some unknown entity or higher power or glitch in the machine of virtual reality– seems to have not only drawn these characters together, but to be continuing to shape their journey.

The reader wouldn’t be blamed for assuming that their goal is escape. Don wants to escape death at the hands of Los Compas de Baja Autonoma. He’s also trying to drown a lingering case of guilt for the daughter he lost, and the life he wasted as a timeshare salesman. Ironically, Americans like Don are probably as responsible for the hellish privatization of the US government as the corporations who have taken her over.

Luna is a woman on a mission. Not only is she out to bring the truth to the world by livecasting breaking news through her groundbreaking ocular implant, she also has a more pressing need to create viral content. The financial success that comes with it can save her mother’s life by paying off her absent father’s massive gambling debts.

Kervens has always dreamed of escape. From his life. From his body. And from Haiti and then Baja Autonoma, all the way across the heavily guarded border into San Diego.

Beneath the story of each character seeking their individual escape or salvation, less-tangible themes begin to emerge. Ketcel is both a journey, and the building– and solving– of a mystery. It involves mythological elements as ancient as the Mayans interwoven with a vision of the brutally hopeless and broken future which we seem to be fast approaching.

Ketcel is an epic adventure full of characters so lifelike and richly animated that it’s impossible not to relate to them. It’s authentic to a future that hasn’t arrived yet, but is lurking just around the corner.

Final rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

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