(The Demi-Monde Saga #1)
Trade Paperback, 528 pages
William Morrow Paperbacks
October 9, 2012
Dystopian Fiction, Feminist Fiction, Literary Fiction, Science Fiction, Steampunk
(Note: This novel was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
This is without a doubt one of the most intense, brilliant, and ambitious novels I have ever read! The sheer scope of the whole thing is nearly mind-boggling, not to mention daunting.
Although the concept is somewhat reminiscent of the film Tron (1982, Walt Disney Productions), the similarity is only on the surface. The artificial world created by Rees is a far more disturbing one. Known as "The Demi-Monde", this world is really a very sophisticated computer game. Living within it are computer re-creations of some of the most evil psychopaths in history -- people like Reinhard Heydrich, who was the principal orchestrator of the Holocaust. These psychopaths, as well as all other inhabitants of the Demi-Monde, are called "PreLived Dupes" by the game programmers. They have been created by using "state-of-the-art DNA-mapping techniques". They look, think, and act exactly as the people they're modeled on did, when alive in the real world.
Interestingly, the programmers in question are members of the US Army, and they have created this game for the purpose of training soldiers to cope with what they call "Asymmetric Warfare Environments". In civilian English, this means environments in which wars are fought with no rules, no honor, in places like Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Demi-Monde not only prepares soldiers to deal with warfare in such environments, but also facilitates the emergence of natural leaders.
After providing the initial programming and formatting for the simulation, the Army programmers then stepped back, allowing ABBA, the artificial intelligence behind the scenes, to "do its own thing". And ABBA most certainly has...
This is the basic premise of the story, but there's so much more. This novel is complex, and obviously very cleverly planned out. The Demi-Monde is composed of several cultural and ethnic groups that are constantly at odds with each other. In describing them, Rees uses the most unusual names; this reveals one of his underlying intentions in writing the novel: satire. Rees satirizes everything and everybody -- the Nazi world view, through his invention of a weird religion, UnFundamentalism (headed by none other than 'His Holiness' Aleister Crowley, a notorious, 20th-century practitioner of black magic), male chauvinism, through the equally weird religion of HimPerialism, and feminism, through yet another weird religion -- that of HerEticalism (whose aggressively militant wing is called "Suffer-O-Gettism"). He has also invented various and sundry labels for many of the denizens of this world, such as 'zadniks', 'nuJus', 'NoirVillians', and 'Shades' (this is a term given to people of color). It's obvious that Rees enjoys throwing out word puns, and, in general, playing around with language. His unusual technique of capitalizing letters in the middle of words, for instance, has the desired effect: when reading these words, the reader is forced to not only read them more slowly, but consequently to become more aware of precisely what the author is trying to do -- satirize the concepts behind these labels. This is one aspect of the novel that I really enjoyed! Satire and irony are immensely effective when, like sharp rapiers, they are wielded by the right hands. Rees makes great use of these elements, and, might I add, does so brilliantly.
The novel's principal conflict is presented at the very beginning: the daughter of the President of the United States has become lost in the game. Enter one Ella Thomas, an 18-year-old, African-American aspiring jazz singer, who has come to the office of an Army general for what she thinks is an audition. Instead, she is offered a million dollars to enter The Demi-Monde in order to rescue the President's daughter. Later in the interview, the offer is raised to FIVE million dollars! Incredibly, Ella accepts, and enters the game, thus becoming a Dupe herself.
The characters in this novel are all fascinating, since they have been thoroughly fleshed-out. All of them, except for Ella and Norma (the President's daughter) are Dupes. Yet, they act just like real people. They have the same emotions, behavior (whether pathological or not), and make decisions, just like real people. The two that stand out for me are Ella Thomas and Vanka Maykov. The latter is a rather lovable rogue who agrees to help Ella in her quest to find and rescue Norma Williams. Equally memorable (but extremely unpleasant) is the very convincingly evil Heydrich, and Trixiebell Dashwood, the daughter of a high-ranking official in the Forthright (a corruption of "Fourth Reich", which was Hitler's name for his envisioned empire).
Yet another very memorable (and also very unpleasant) character is Aleister Crowley. It is the height of irony that he should espouse the tenets of UnFundamentalism, which include abstaining from sex outside of marriage. True to his real-world counterpart, Crowley the Dupe turns out to be a pervert. (Not that there are any luridly graphic sex scenes in this novel, thankfully.)
Although this book is, in my opinion, a masterpiece, there are some aspects of it that did bother me as I was reading. One of these is the nearly constant use of profanity. When I requested the book for review, I had no idea it would contain so much of this. There are, of course, readers who don't mind this at all. I definitely do! More than once, I was tempted to put the book down; I winced every time I came across one of these 'lovely' words. However, the plot and deft characterizations kept me going. I really wanted to know whether Ella's mission would be successful. So I persisted. Ultimately, I'm glad that I did.
Another thing that bothered me was the ever-present racism and sexism, which was especially part of the ForthRight. Like Hitler (who, inexplicably enough, was not re-created as a Dupe, and is therefore unknown to the Demi Mondians), Heydrich and his fellow UnFundamentalists firmly believe in the superiority of the Aryan race. They call all other ethnic groups "UnderMentionables". In fact, these people are not even allowed entrance to ForthRight territory. The hatred, the brainwashing, indeed, all the horribly evil features of the Nazis are present in the ForthRight. They even have slaves -- usually blacks and Orientals. Women are taught, through the ForthRight religion, that they are not to get involved in politics, or any other sphere of activity deemed suitable only for men. ABBA, after all, designated different tasks for men and women.
I do realize that Rees has created this "world gone horribly wrong" for the purpose of satire, and I do think it's effective, if chillingly so. However, it did not make for comfortable reading. But then, isn't this a rather pathetic mirror of our own sadly twisted world? Most modern societies might not have Nazis running around, nor own slaves, while women are increasingly reaching higher levels in the corporate world. However, there are still those societies where injustice and oppression run rampant, where the attitudes and behaviors portrayed by Rees are all too cruelly real. Through his satirical characters and situations, Rees is showing us who we still are, despite all of our efforts to rise above such evils.
Equally uncomfortable are the sometimes uncompromisingly brutal events depicted in some parts of the novel. Of course, such events are sometimes inevitable, given the evils present in this world. Still, they were very unsettling to read about.
I also found some elements of the plot not quite believable. For example, why would the Army send a very young, untrained woman into such an unpredictable and dangerous environment? And why would they do so under the ridiculous pretense of having her audition for a gig as a jazz singer? Another example is Trixie Dashwood's sudden transformation into a revolutionary, although she, like her father, has been a closet dissenter for years.
In spite of all these objections, The Demi-Monde does remain a very impressive, challenging novel. While keeping the reader constantly engaged with the plot's twists and turns, as well as the well-crafted setting and dialogue, it simultaneously raises questions about the nature of so-called 'reality'. Are we all, indeed, just Dupes ourselves, in this world we like to believe is 'real'? Is there something or someone analogous to ABBA controlling our own world events? Theologically, from a Christian standpoint, I would have to answer in the negative. Philosophically, however, perhaps the answer is very much debatable.
In short, this novel is an intellectual tour-de-force, as well as an exciting adventure. While not all of its aspects are pleasant, and might create a disturbing sense of malaise in some readers (as they did with me), it's well worth the read! I don't think I'll ever forget it, and neither, I predict, will anyone else who dares to venture into the rather bizarre, but highly compelling world of the Demi-Monde.
Rod Rees has built pharmaceutical factories in Dhaka, set up a satellite communication network in Moscow, and conceived and designed a jazz-themed hotel in the U.K. Now a full-time writer, he lives in Daventry, England, with his wife, Nelli, and their two children.
(as originally published in the U.K.)
To access other blog tour stops
(the second book is reviewed instead),
simply click on the tour button below.