“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players“~William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Perhaps in this instance, it is better to say that all the computer program is a stage, and all the NPCs—not to mention several humans—are merely players. Because that is the case in Rod Rees’ hugely entertaining, if slightly mistifying, debut sci-fi adventure novel The Demi-Monde: Winter.
The novel revolves around dancer and jazz singer Ella Thomas, recruited by the U.S. military to execute the rescue Miss Norma Williams, a captive in the Demi-Monde, a cyber world developed for the most immersive combat training the not-too-distant future can afford. And inside the Demi-Monde, we follow a cast of characters painted not in the blacks and whites of villainy and goodness (as far as the protagonists go), but in wonderful shades of gray bound to entertain audiences of adventure, science fiction, and revisionist history over the (presumed) planned series.
Built with the aesthetic of steampunk, a mishmash of historical elements ranging from World War II to the American Civil War to biblical times, and a cultural integration intended to be a powder keg, the titular cyber realm is, to this reader, one of the most well constructed fictional worlds of late. It takes the basic concept of The Matrix‘s setting—the ability to enter and exit, to befriend be fooled by the essential artifice of its denizens—and makes it not just the prison of the Wachowski siblings’ films, but also sprinkled with the occult trappings and playfulness of Indiana Jones. And the mechanics feel plausible, which is definitely a plus. We believe that, of couse, Ella would have an implant giving her expository information about most, if not all, supporting characters when she needs it. Of course we believe that she can interact with the Demi-Monde on occasion. We believe these because Rees has the sense to build a world planned so meticulously that even its flaws are there on purpose. Oh, and is that a hint of mysticism there? Even better.
The same applies to the characters—well, the protagonists anyway. Ella is the forthright hero, but susceptible in ways the reader must discover. Norma is the victim, justifiably and annoyingly whiny. Trixibell Dashwood (now there’s a name) the Daddy’s girl who has to grow up fast. Vanka Maykov, the opportunistic drifter who, for now at least, has a heart of gold. They’re fun characters, and great to watch more because of their internal struggles, even though their occasionally predictable plot lines are well written and engaging too. As for the villains? They’re pretty much as mustache-twirly as you can get. But if you really wanted to, you could explain it away as an ingredient that helps produce the book’s pulpy charms.
One element I can’t and don’t want to overlook, however, is a hastiness in the characters’ individual arcs. While the characters all have definable problems that change or escalate as the story proceeds, the actual arc occurs very quickly. This might be intentional, a choice by the author to have his protagonists face different internal obstacles while pursuing a consistent external goal, but the connective tissue between points in the realization of those arcs seems thin, almost non-existant. Put simply, changes in certain characters’ personalities or thought processes are sudden and awkward. It makes the story raise questions when it should be focusing us on the rising suspense, but I have a feeling this is an issue the author will smooth out—or become better at—the longer he stays in his characters’ company in this fantastic and dangerous world.
The Demi-Monde: Winter is a great start to a promising adventure series in the vein of films like The Matrix and Indiana Jones. However, while associating it with such classic stories is high praise, it still has to prove it’s got the staying power to truly belong in their ranks.
NOTE: This book is technically adult fiction, but could be an awesome read for older teens. Just beware of some strong language and sensuality, if you’re a stickler for that sort of thing.