EXPERIENCE THE ULTIMATE IN VIRTUAL REALITY. The Demi-Monde is the most advanced computer simulation ever devised. Created to prepare soldiers for the nightmarish reality of urban warfare, it is a virtual world locked in eternal civil war. Its thirty million digital inhabitants are ruled by duplicates of some of history’s cruellest tyrants: Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Holocaust; Beria, Stalin’s arch executioner; Torquemada, the pitiless Inquisitor General; Robespierre, the face of the Reign of Terror. But something has gone badly wrong inside the Demi-Monde, and the US President’s daughter has become trapped in this terrible world. It falls to eighteen-year-old Ella Thomas to rescue her, yet once Ella has entered the Demi-Monde she finds that everything is not as it seems, that its cyber-walls are struggling to contain the evil within and that the Real World is in more danger than anyone realises
My streak of reading books troll-recommended to me by acrackedmoon continues. This time around we’re looking at Demi-Monde: Winter, the first book in a trilogy that I’m told gets mind-blowingly awful in the second installment.
I hope that’s true because there’s not a whole lot to say about Winter.
You know things have gotten pretty dire when “didn’t bore me to death” is your minimum bar for quality, but after wading through so much urban fantasy garbage over the last few weeks it’s breath of fresh air to read something that actually has some narrative momentum.
Once a few opening chapters of mostly-unnecessary exposition are over the plot clips along at a nice pace, a sort of combination cold war spy thriller and WWII action story. The idea of the virtual Demi-Mondians becoming aware of the existence of another world outside of their own is pretty fascinating, although I’m sure it’s been done before. Rees makes a decent stab at some Quentin Tarantino-esque plot thread pile-ups and tense “do they know that we know that they know” conversations between the heroes and their jack-booted nemeses. It’s all very breezy and fast-paced, the sort of thing you can pick up on the bus and just get lost in for half an hour.
It may, however, be a little too fast paced in places, as in his excitement to get to the next plot point Rees sails right past unimportant trivialities like believable character development. The President’s Daughter is at one point forced to move into the home of a high-ranking colonel in the hope that his 17 year old daughter Trixie can get her to let her guard down enough to spill the beans about the “Spirit World” she comes from. It’s an interesting set-up that’s just ripe for all sorts of fascinating drama, particularly as Trixie and her father are under the looming threat of execution if they fail. Unfortunately Rees apparently got bored with the idea as soon as he had it because the story skips right over their two-week bonding attempt with barely a word exchanged between them. This may be for the best anyway, as The President’s Daughter is such an obnoxious Mary Sue and Trixie such a one-dimensional non-entity that I can’t imagine their interaction would have yielded much of anything.
That’s not to say that the characters are static. Oh no. Over the course of the story Trixie goes from a meek, docile school-girl obediently accepting her inferior position in the aggressively patriarchal area of the Demi-Monde she lives in to a strong, heroic don’t-take-shit-from-anyone revolutionary.
Oh sorry, did I say “over the course of the story”? I actually meant over the course of a single day. She casts off her ingrained prejudices and unquestioning respect for authority. She leads armies. Generals and colonels shake her hand. She gives a dramatic speech that inspires an entire city to fight to the death rather than roll over and accept oppression. Her brilliant strategies confound the most ruthless and experienced military leader in the entire evil empire. Seasoned veterans line up to tell her how awesome she is, how she’s “the bravest person I’ve ever met” and how if the rest of the pansies in virtual cyber-Warsaw won’t fight a hopeless battle because an untrained 17 year old told them to than they will fight beside her.
After one day. I’m not exaggerating, all of the bullshit I just described really happens.
This leaves Ella and her conman sidekick Vanka to pick up the slack. They’re alright. I guess. Ella is…… feisty? I’m sorry, that’s all I’ve got. They’re not Dan Brown characters but they’re not much better either.
Rees’s writing is functional, most of the time. Dialogue is alright as long as he doesn’t try to give anyone an accent and it gets the job done, although character’s internal narration tends to consist of “she felt sad that he was dead, but then she made herself not be sad, and she wasn’t sad any more”, which usually signifies the work of a not terribly experienced writer. In fact the entire thing feels like a first effort, down to the one-dimensional morality and the clumsy insertion of the author’s Very Important Opinions into the story.
The book spends an awful lot of time telling us that Heydrich, Beria and the other dictators inserted into the Demi-Monde to pull shenanigans are “psychopaths”, incapable of feeling empathy or even basic human emotion. From a narrative standpoint this is obviously unsatisfying. Villains who are evil because they’re evil is something I can just about tolerate in children’s books, but not in something that was supposedly written for adults. It gets into more questionable territory when the blame for racism, sexism and other societal ills are laid at the feet of a handful of bad apples while absolving the society that produced them of any blame, as happens here. It gets especially weird when after being told how sociopathic and emotionless and ker-aaaaazy the villains are Ella compares them to her cocaine-addicted brother. Because drug addiction means you’re the same as a Nazi dictator, I guess.
The Demi-Monde: Winter feels like a theoretically good idea executed by someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing. I find it amazing that some of the mistakes made in the book would get through any self-respecting author’s internal bullshit filters or failing that, those of an editor and publisher.
It’s not terrible. I was if not entertained than at least diverted by much of this book. If you’re looking for long plane trip, well…. you could do a lot better than this but you could also do a whole lot worse.