Demi-Monde: Winter by Rod Rees
Published by Quercus, January 2011
ISBN: 978 184 916 3033 (Review copy received)
Reviewed by Mark Yon
Imagine that, in order to train soldiers, the most advanced computer in the world is given the task of developing a world-sized simulation area, to train for all eventualities. Its solution is to create an artificial world, with simulacra of some of history’s most notorious madmen and murderers – such as Torquemada (torturer of the Spanish Inquisition), Maximilien Robespierre (similarly of the French Revolution of the 1700’s), Reinhard Heydrich (the planner of the Nazi Final Solution) – for the soldiers to defeat. The world is the Demi-Monde, a place which, thanks to the increasingly evolving heuristic computer, has gone badly wrong. Though in many ways similar to our world, it has developed its own religions and culture, a strange melange of computer-speak, societal characteristics and historical precedents, as well as allowing some of the world’s most evil and twisted characters ever seen to develop their own domains.
Furthermore, the US president’s teenage daughter, Norma Williams, has been made hostage and so eighteen-year-old jazz singer Ella Thomas is trained and sent in undercover to retrieve her.
At first glance, the elements that make up this book shouldn’t work. Think TRON, or the holodeck of the USS Enterprise, or indeed Tad Williams’s Otherland or Philip K Dick’s We Can Build You. Combine with an assortment of quite unpleasant people, from a range of different historical eras, steampunk and a sly (if not always subtle) sense of humour, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the whole package is rather a mess.
However what Rod has done here is cleverly combined these elements into something that works. There are detailed maps and also a lengthy glossary at the back, in order to tell your Aryan from your ABBA. The exhaustive website (www.thedemi-monde.com ) also fills in details you may wish to check further. This is a book with a rich background tapestry. The world building is quite something and so clearly thought out that, despite those initial concerns, those disparate elements do work together here.
In the tale the computer has taken many of the Real World elements of society and evolved its own corrupted version of them: Jazz is called ‘Jad’, voodoo is ‘WhoDoo’, lesbians are ‘LessBien’. Some of the concepts in the DemiMonde are given more details: MALEvolence is the theory developed by Mary Wollstonecraft that suggests that war is caused by men but suffered by women. HerEticals are followers of the official religion of the Coven, developed by the Empress Wu.
The world is designed to be in continuous disagreement, so as to maintain the tension required for training. Consequently, societies are set up to create this also. Racism is a key aspect of this world, ethnicity another. People of colour are referred to as ‘Shades’, and people of a Jewish background named ‘nuJus’. Class creates further division, with some areas of the DemiMonde having a rigid class structure, others not.
Following this further, the systems of government are also meant to create divergence. Our tale here mainly involves the ForthRight, designed to be the new Arian equivalent of the Demi-Monde, (Fourth Reich, anyone?), and whose UnFunDaMentalism (the ideas and philosophies of the Aryan people which basically relate to the purification of the Demi-Mondian race through selective breeding and culling) rules.
In terms of characters, our main characters from our history in this sector of the Demi-Monde are Aleister Crowley (demonologist), a nasty Civil War guerrilla named Archie Clement. There are mentions of people such as Gregori Rasputin and Lucrezia Borgia. To this we have other characters: the devilish rake Vanka Maykov, the evil Demi-Mondian criminal mastermind Burlesque Bandstand, and the spoilt young debutante, Trixie Dashwood, who are all involved with Ella in the retrieval of Norma Williams.
The retrieval is made more difficult as it occurs at a time when it is discovered that Norma has been kidnapped in order to create a means of magically strengthening the dominance of the brutal ForthRight. Furthermore, the UnFunDaMentalists are determined to wipe out the NuJu Ghetto in the city of Warsaw for the good of UnFunDaMentalism before moving on to take over the rest of the Demi-Monde in an Operation Barbarossa kind of way.
Whereas the world building is terrific, there are some weak spots. The characterisation, in particular, is at times a little weak and rather unsubtle. For example, Trixie Dashwood, the spoilt brat of a senior official, is initially jarringly annoying, though within a matter of about twenty-four hours, and one hundred pages, finds herself leading a Polish army against the ForthRight, whilst our main heroine, Ella, veers wildly from being initially quite naive to a little all too knowing as a sex goddess in her WhoDoo manifestation. Similarly, the bad guys are – well, bad, in that ‘boo-hiss’ kind of way, and at times a little simplistic and interchangeable. Furthermore, the dialogue can, in places, be a little too trite.
Yet, despite this, the story generally rattles along nicely, particularly from about halfway in. The scenes in war-torn Warsaw are quite visual and emotive, and the ending is quite an interesting one that sets up the next book in the series. By the end you want to read the next book, which is a good sign.
The tome is the first of a proposed four volumes. I look forward to the next.
Mark Yon, December 2010