Norma Williams knows she was a fool to be lured into the virtual nightmare that is the Demi-Monde. When the agent sent in the game to save her goes rogue and a long forgotten evil is awoken, it falls to Norma to lead the resistance.
Lost, without a plan, and with the army of the ForthRight marching ever closer, she must come to terms with terrible new responsibilities and with the knowledge that those she thought were her friends are now her enemies. To triumph in this surreal cyber-world she must be more than she ever believed she could be . . . or perish.
I should mention right up front that I didn’t finish The Demi-Monde: Spring. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I got about two-thirds of the way through before my brain started talking to me.
Literally, it spoke with an audible voice. “No.” it said. “I sat through the first Urban Fantasy book. I held my tongue through the second one since it was marginally less awful than the first. The first Demi-Monde book nearly bored me to tears. And now I’ve had enough. No more. If I have to read one more clumsy metaphor or inane dialogue exchange I will literally die. I’ll give you until the end of this chapter, then put down this bullshit and pick up a real book or I swear I’ll crawl out of your ear canal and leave you a mindless husk. You’ll have a Reddit account made within the hour.”
I just couldn’t take that risk.
So, The Demi-Monde: Spring. EPIC SEQUEL to the first book, Winter. I’ve noticed a trend in genre fiction for the opening act in anything longer than a trilogy to be okay to decent before things start to fall apart dramatically in the sophomore effort (see Wheel of Time for a textbook example). There are a number of reasons why this happens, and today we’re going to learn all about them because this book hits every single one on its way down the Cliffs of Bullshit to land in a broken heap at the bottom of Fail Mountain.
Right off the bat we can tell that Rod Rees had big plans for his second book. The number of viewpoint characters balloons to encompass anyone with a passing relevance to the plot even as the characters splinter into distantly separated groups, a common problem with long fantasy series. In order to accomplish this Rees dramatically alters several character’s personalities to make them suddenly more likable and competent than they were before- see for example Burlesque Bandstand, a violent idiotic thug in the first book who suddenly transforms into a street-smart anti-hero in the vein of some of Terry Pratchett’s seedier characters. So not only are we wasting time with people we don’t care about, they’re barely recognizable as the same people we didn’t care about the first time around. This combined with the number of new players in the story essentially doubles the cast. None of this is helped by the fact that Rees spends a good portion of the first third of the book retconning most of the world-building and backstory established previously, which turns out to have been an elaborate smokescreen created by the villains. Naturally this is achieved by parachuting multiple one-note POV characters into the narrative and having them deliver massive, clunky infodumps. In several plot critical scenes Rees actually switches viewpoint character back and forth to make sure we know exactly what everyone is thinking, a technique that makes me suspect he might have some sort of film-making background as it felt very akin to camera cuts in a movie.
That new back-story I mentioned initially seems like it might save the book but just ends up holding its head underwater until the flailing stops. Here we have virtual cyber vampires who are also real vampires who are trying to rule the world by swindling the American government, and an ancient empire created by Lillith giving rise to super-geniuses and demon-powered witches. It’s the sort of batshit insanity that tends to crop up in the hokier parts of the Assassin’s Creed lore- exceedingly silly but potentially kind of interesting. But it just falls completely flat due to how we’re introduced to it. So much new information is dumped on the reader at the beginning of the book that it starts to feel like Rees is just pulling things out of his ass, in particular the virtual cyber vampires which weren’t even mentioned in the first book but are now suddenly treated as common knowledge.
Beyond that the storytelling here is just sloppy. One of the protagonists gets electrocuted early in and morphs into a completely different character due to ancient demon ancestors or something. The terrible writing in this scene really needs to be seen to be seen to be believed:
Time passed – though it seemed nebulous, twisting and turning, mutating and merging the Now with the Then, with the Never-Was, with the What-Might-Have-Been and with the That-Which-Is-Yet-To-Come.
Suddenly she was still. In that instant her spirit settled, condensed back into a place that was just a sliver of her imagination, and gazing out into the Nothingness she saw herself gazing back.
Herself in the form of Lilith.
‘I am come, Ella,’ said Lilith, her unvoiced words heavy with foreboding. ‘This is your Awakening. The fires damped within you are now rekindled. You are Lilith reborn.’
‘Lilith? But Lilith is just a myth.’
‘A myth now made flesh: Doctor Mengele, by his meddling, has unleashed that which you had imprisoned inside yourself. It is time for you to finish the work which I – which you – began those many centuries ago.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You are no mere Fragile, Ella: you are a woman with powers and abilities denied those primitives. You have inherited the talents of the first Lilith, the Goddess born eleven thousand years ago in the now forgotten past, the first person ever to manifest overt powers of zoological heredity.’ Lilith sensed Ella’s befuddlement, ‘She was able to convey her ancestral memory and experiences to her daughters intact and by this gift of Atavistic Thought Inheritance, the whole of the knowledge and the experiences of that first Lilith were visited upon her daughters,
And so on, for several more pages. Why yes, the “doctor Mengele” mentioned up there is indeed virtual cyber Mengele, just in case you had any doubts as to who the villains are.
Infodumps like this crop up again and again throughout the book as Rees realizes he needs to explain some new piece of bullshit to get the plot moving and has his characters start talking like living encyclopedias:
But even Kondratieff had to admit to being – sod it – surprised to be meeting a Visual Virgin. They were, after all, semi-mythological creatures, and the girl who stepped out from the shadows wasn’t just any Visual Virgin. This was, unless he was very much mistaken, the most famous Visual Virgin of them all, Sister Florence, the Auralist who had identified the Gang of Three, who had discovered the nest of Dark Charismatics the Quartier Chaud had been nurturing in its bosom – or in its Senate, to be more accurate.
What’s that? You want to know what a Visual Virgin is?
As the chamberlain made his reluctant departure, the Doge effected the introductions. ‘Docteur Kondratieff, I have pleasure in introducing Zizter Florence, Zenior Auralist in zhe Zacred unt All-Zeeing Convent of Visual Virgins here in Venice.’
The Sister did not disappoint. Kondratieff guessed her to be in her late teens: though she was veiled it was obvious from her body that she was in the prime of life, and, being so very tall, there was certainly a lot of body to be primed. What was more, thanks to the transparent habit she was wearing, he had an almost uninterrupted view of all that wonderful body. The garment was made from a delicate red organza that didn’t so much cover her naked body as tint it.
Here Rees stumbles into the same problem that Robert Jordan did in his late books: allowing his penis to write the story. This is far from the only time barely-adult women’s bodies are lovingly described in the text, but it might be the stupidest. Visual Virgins wear see-through clothes you see, and practice “fiduciary sex” or the art of posing sexily, the better to reveal people’s auras. Because when people are aroused their auras are clearer. For some reason.
We’re told repeatedly that virtual cyber magic in the Demi-Monde is powered by orgasms and boners, giving Rees an excuse to shove awkward sex scene into the novel. The book starts with the aftermath of an orgy designed to facilitate a soul-transference ritual. The main character escapes a city midway through the book by sneaking out through another orgy.
A good chunk of the book takes place in the Medi, essentially virtual cyber Paris, Florence, Rome and a few other Mediterranean cities smashed together. In this region of the Demi-Monde people live by the philosophy of ImPuritanism, which means that everyone has sex all the time in pursuit of the perfect orgasm. It’s considered poor etiquette to reject the advances of another person without at least letting them fondle your boob or grab your junk a few times (the potential of this system for abuse goes unexamined). People have sex as often as shaking hands and open air orgies are a common social event.
‘Bollocks, CitiZen,’ Odette said with a smile. ‘The Charter of Responsibilities says that CitiZens of the Quartier Chaud are permitted to seek JuiceSense by engaging in sexual pleasure – of whatever description – free from abuse, violence or coercion. It also says, CitiZen,’ and here Odette’s voice took on a harder edge, ‘that it is the responsibility of all CitiZens to refrain from censuring, curtailing, impeding or compromising another’s sexual pleasure, except when such sexual pleasure mitigates their own. And I think that’s what you’re doing, CitiZen, censuring me.’ She smiled again. ‘So why don’t you just fuck off while you’re still capable of fucking off?’
The rather obvious question of how parents shield their children from having to watch them rut in the street like pigs every time they leave the house is resolved by simply not mentioning anyone below the age of eighteen, giving the whole area the bizarre feel of a giant adults-only red light district rather than an actual city people are supposed to live in. I suppose Rees was too busy masturbating to think the implications of his world-building through.
Sister Florence stood up, bowed to both the Doge and Kondratieff, and then silently exited the room.
‘Zo all iz zettled,’ said the Doge in a misty voice, once she and Kondratieff were alone. ‘Unt now I feel somevhat enervated, Docteur, unt in need of stimulation. All zhis political manoeuvring is most tiring.’ Almost casually she drew open her bodice. ‘You may attack my body venever you vish, Docteur.’
What wouldn’t a man do to serve his Doge? Kondratieff wondered, as he began his dutiful nuzzling of the woman’s breasts.
Here we have a universe in which experienced older women practically force you to have sex with them after a formal political discussion. Because that’s not an obvious wank-fantasy.
Then she stood up and enveloped the Anglo in a huge hug, and such was the disparity in their heights that the man’s face found its way quite wonderfully between her breasts. Amazingly, the silly Anglo blushed.
“Wank, my readers!” Rod Rees cried, his lube-slick fingers gliding across the keyboard. “Wank harder! WANK FOREVER.”
Women in the book are constantly going around dressed in diaphanous transparent silk or gold filigree bikinis. In one memorable scene a whole army of women attack the virtual cyber Bastille in outfits that leave one of their breasts exposed, giving rise to the Saga of The Untethered Breast (see also the whole “NuJu” thing which I’ve avoided bringing up on account of it being too stupid even for me to complain about). This raises interesting, even vital questions about the nature of the Demi-Monde. What does it mean for a breast to be “tethered”? Are breasts normally attached to the chest via some sort of cord? Could one use tethered breasts to abseil down a building, or swing them hard enough to render a person unconscious? We need to know the answers to these questions, Rod Rees. Please enlighten us.
I might be giving you the idea that Spring is some sort of nonstop carnival of sex and textual pornography, but in fact the book is weirdly chaste most of the time. We gets lots of fairly dry descriptions of naked breasts and asses and maybe a few “luscious thighs” but nothing that could be considered remotely titillating. The actual sex scenes take place off-screen and even the orgies are reduced to “then they passed crowds of art students fornicating” or a few brief mentions of naked bodies entwined together. I don’t know whether Rees is trying to write smut and failing badly or if he somehow invented a setting involving constant street orgies then got cold feet, but either way the book spends a large chunk of its page count trying to be pathetic wank fodder for men unsuccessfully.
And make no mistake, you’ll be looking for something to wake you up from the dazed stupor the rest of the book puts you in. Any time a plot thread threatens to become interesting the viewpoint whisks us away to another set of protagonists and the characters are forever making infuriatingly coy remarks like “His aura was unlike anything she had ever seen before….. could he really be….?” or “If what she suspected about the woman was true, then…..!” that promise some sort of interesting revelation if only the reader will wade through a few more exhausting multi-viewpoint chase sequences and battle scenes. The decision to ramp up the action was a mistake, as Rees simply isn’t good at writing action scenes. The heroes tend to win far too easily even when the deck is stacked against them, usually by Rees pulling an author saving throw out of his ass. And his already shaky grasp of language goes to shit when bullets or swords start flying- characters are described as “hauling” guns out of their pockets so frequently I started to develop a mental tic every time the word cropped up. There’s a reason I spent so long reading this and didn’t get to the end. It’s like running a marathon through quick sand.
Before I close this thing out I want to talk about some of the mildly racist elements of the series. I avoided mentioning it in my review of the first book because the characters kept talking about travelling to an outrageously racist sounding virtual cyber Middle East/ Africa mashup and I figured I’d just save it for then, but they end up not going there in the first two books.
So Rees, enlightened and progressive fellow that he is, includes a whopping two black characters in his cast during these first two books. I mentioned in my review of the first book that he’s terrible at writing any sort of accent and this applies just as much to the accent he attempts with these characters. You know, the black accent that all black people have. Let’s take a look (“Shade” is a derogatory term for black in the Demi-Monde, just go with it):
‘Any time, honey. Any opportunity to take in the famous Vanka Maykov.’ Josephine gave Norma a wink. ‘But like always, Vanka baby, your coming has, like, precipitated my going.’
‘End of the season?’ suggested Vanka.
‘A big no to, Vanka. It’s endsville for the Quartier Chaud, more like. Word is, the ForthRight Army will be coming through the gates of Paris early tomorrow, and as they come in yours truly will be exiting stage left. Thanks to you, Vanka, I had a taste of what those Checkya cats are like a couple of weeks back, and I only got them off my black ass because of my diplomatic passport – and because the Mayor of Berlin didn’t want his wife to dig that he’d been mixing and mingling with a frail of the Shade persuasion. And talking of Shades, I’ve got some good news for you, Vanka baby: Ella made it outta the Bastille okay.’
Yeah. She’s really pissed off Heydrich, who put the word out that Torquemada should get hot and heavy on her ass. Man, that cat is all white and spite.’
‘Hot diggity-dog. Heydrich must be really pissed off about the Lady IMmanual vacating the Bastille. That’ll be why everyone and their brother’s out looking for Ella.’
‘But she’s okay?’
‘Chill, Vanka baby. Some goodniks have got her holed up in the Convent of the Sacred and All-Seeing Order of Visual Virgins here in Paris. They’re gonna be sneaking her out to Venice real soon.’
What the fuck? Is she supposed to be a beatnik or something? And this isn’t just a Demi-Monde thing, the protagonist from the real world occasionally slips into this bizarre THESE BADNIK CATS ARE WHACK DADDYO speech as well. In a ludicrous plot twist that adds absolutely nothing to the story it’s revealed that the book is actually taking place in an alternate history in which the US was economically crippled by World War II and politically dominated by a still all-powerful British Empire (good luck explaining that), something that had been hinted at in the first book but not stated explicitly. I don’t know if the anachronistic accents are supposed to somehow stem from this or if Rees has simply never met an African American person and think this is actually how they speak, but either way it’s notable that the white characters speak in (extremely poorly written and cartoonish approximations of) modern accents.
So, The Demi-Monde: Spring. I’ve probably made it sound a lot more fun than it is. This book isn’t fun-bad, it’s just bad. A dull, incoherent, amateurishly plotted waste of paper and kilobytes that can’t even be terrible enough to entertain. That Rod Rees managed to publish a single book amazes me. That he managed to lock down a deal for a four-book series just makes me want to burn down the entire professional publishing industry and start over again.
I’m not going to read the last two books in the series, but wherever Rees ends up steering this flaming train wreck I can confidently say he should have kept it confined to his fevered, adolescent imagination.