You must and will understand, fair or foul reader (but where’s the difference?), that I bring sad tidings. The Demi-Monde: Winter, the first book in a projected quadrilogy by British debut author Rod Rees, ends in a cliffhanger. A proper cliffhanger it is, too, none of your wishy-washy measly cliffs. No, Winter ends with a cocked gun — two cocked guns, in fact — and a doppelganger-swapping in progress. And I, dear reader, am miffed.
I’m not miffed because Winter is a bad book. On the contrary. I’m miffed because I stayed awake reading until four in the morning on a Friday night (when I had to get up for a seminar at nine the next morning) to finish it, only to learn that I have to wait until January at the earliest — January, my friends! — to find out what happens next.
The Demi-Monde is a computer simulation developed to train soldiers for asymmetric warfare. Its parameters promote violence, cruelty, and chaos, it’s run by psychopaths and madmen modelled on history’s worst personalities, and it’s gone horribly wrong. Because if you die in the Demi-Monde, you die for real, and if you turn off the plug, the people who are inside the simulation end up as vegetables.
Now Norma Williams, daughter of the U.S. President, is trapped there, a captive in the hands of the faction run by the Dupes — computer simulations — of Reinhard Heydrich, Lavrentiy Beria, and Aleister Crowley. Ella Thomas, an eighteen-year-old jazz singer, is the only person with a hope of reaching her. Recruited by the U.S. Army and sent into the Demi-Monde with little more than her wits, Ella finds herself in the middle of a nightmare. Hunted by the authorities, she falls in with the Dupe Vanka Maykov, a psychic fraud who has no reason to love the way his world is run. Together, they hatch a daring plan to rescue Norma from under the noses of Heydrich and his merry band of fanatics.
The plan goes wrong. Ella and Vanka — and Norma — are pitched headlong into the Demi-Monde’s version of the Warsaw ghetto on the eve of the Demi-Monde’s version of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Their urgent need to escape is compounded by the fact that the Demi-Monde has discovered that the Real World exists, and Heydrich is determined to move in and conquer it — a plan which requires that he control Norma Williams. Urban warfare, sewer chases, religious revelations, air balloon journeys, and dangerous mystic ceremonies ratchet up the tension towards the cliffhanger conclusion.
Rees’ gift is pacing and characterisation. Winter is a hectic ride from one high-stakes confrontation to the next, at a speed that makes the array of factions, religions, and other sources of conflict in the Demi-Monde blur into bewilderment. (As an aside: I’m not in love with the PostMoDernist abuse of capitals that Rees has used as convention for naming things in the Demi-Monde: UnFunDaMentalism, HerEsy, nuJu, ForthRight, and so forth, but at least it’s a slightly more tolerable annoyance than the A’lien Ap’ostrophe.) He knows how to keep the tension coming, and that’s a very good thing.
The characters, even — especially — the monstrous fanatics, are all well drawn. Particularly interesting is the character of Trixie Dashwood, a Demi-Mondain pampered daughter of the establishment who develops into a hardened resistance leader and a remorseless killer. Vanka and Norma are also skilfully portrayed, but the real star of the show (as far as I’m concerned) is Ella.
Did I mention, by the way, that Ella is black? And female? And competent?
I’m not saying there aren’t moments of race—or gendered—fail here. There were a couple of points at which it was fairly obvious that the female points of view were being written by a guy. (Come on, guys: do you honestly think people like being leered at by a fanatic?) And while the whole setup of the Demi-Monde seems clearly designed to squick out anyone who has strong feelings about social justice and human rights, I’m not prepared to say that I really love dystopia as a setting.
As a book about a fantastical computer simulation gone really dangerous, The Demi-Monde: Winter beats the hell out of Tad Williams’ Otherland, which is the first other example to come to mind. It’s gripping and tense, and I’m still bitter about the cliffhanger.
You should read it, so that I’m not the only person waiting impatiently for Spring.
Liz Bourke would have written something interesting in this space, but sleep deprivation drove it from her mind.