Although I’d never heard of Olivia Hill, The Story Graph recommended her novel to me based on my reading history. I was surprised; self-published novels never make it to the top of Goodreads, and here we see a key difference in the two book cataloging sites. Ultra is yet another novel I read aloud to my spouse each night, and we both enjoyed the experience greatly. It has clever pop culture references, plenty of snark, and hard-to-forget characters.
Take Tiffany. She can hear what people are thinking. When she was a child, she learned from her father, who also has strange psychic powers, just how many cameras are in a public space and how to stay off anyone’s radar. That is, except her “handler,” an agent with the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) who comes biweekly to check on her.
Then there’s Miranda. She was the biggest pop sensation in the early 2000s who had an uncanny ability to make her audiences do what she wanted. Miranda’s “handler” never lets her out of his sight until one day Miranda has a couple of free hours and she’s told to make her own decision about what to do. It leads to a domino effect.
Naomi is just your average goth, never mind that part about telekinesis. She works at Movieland, a theme park where guests can relish in the nostalgia of their favorite classic films. Naomi’s best friend is a for-hire vampire hunter named Jun, and they’re a cynical duo. (Though not much is made of the paranormal in Ultra; Hill leaves that for her #iHunt series).
Strangely — or maybe not — Tiffany, Miranda, and Naomi look like three versions of the same person. The truth? The trio are meant to Converge as part of the conclusion to a scientific experiment after which the Converged women can be used as a weapon against potential alien attacks. I know this all sounds nutty, but hang in there. I read Ultra aloud to my spouse, who pointed out that Project MK Ultra was real, and that Hill uses conspiracy fact as a foundation for her novel. The novel concludes in a secret base similar to Area 51, complete with a hotel called the Ali-Inn and a restaurant that serves “. . . a whole bunch of simple standards you can teach a new line cook to make in twenty minutes or less because he’s got to take over for the previous cook who got arrested for meth.”
Ultra develops a ragtag bunch of characters who collect into a crew: Tiffany, Miranda, Naomi, Jun, and Cohyn (a college student who can leave his body — astral projection — and bumps into Tiffany one night while doing so). If you were born around the mid-1980s in the U.S., you’ll “get” these characters. Although the book is set in a made-up place that sounds suspiciously like New Mexico, there’s also a Midwestern vibe, such as giving Cohyn some ginger ale before they take him to the emergency room. The way the characters think and speak, their references; all of it felt familiar to me, a person who entered high school in 1999. Miranda may as well be Britney Spears, and Naomi could be Jane Lane out of Daria.
Fortunately, despite looking like versions of the same person — one normal, one pop star, and one goth version — Tiffany, Miranda, and Naomi have their own personalities. You know me; I read aloud with voices, and I was channeling Brittney Taylor, head cheerleader from Daria, when I read Miranda. Naomi’s characterization could have been pushed a bit more. What is a late 90s/early 2000s goth if not inconvenienced, jaded, and incredibly negative about the outcome of everything? Naomi was a bit too normal, a little too like Tiffany at times.
Hill’s world building is appealing, unfolding slowly as the trio learn more about their powers when they escape DIA agents and figure out what the hell is going on at the same time the reader does. Those agents, however, are not merely presented as faceless black suits — “bad guys” — Hill writes them with depth and selects a few to have back stories, making us care about them while rooting for our trio as the decide if they should Converge, if they can avoid if they want, and what the hell happens if they do? On the side, Jun kicks ass without super powers, thankyouverymuch, and Cohyn is able to sneak past locked doors and remains invisible to people, assisting his new friends with getting into places.
Ultra is a fun, witty science fiction novel for the elder millennial with a female-dominant cast perfect for readers interested in psychic powers, Area 51, and Stranger Things.