Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Demi-Monde: Winter

"Whatever happened to 'Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law'?"
- Norma Williams

          I will at the very least give Rod Rees this about his book The Demi-Monde: Winter. He is an ambitious son of a bitch*. In his debut novel, he takes cyberpunk, melds it with a certain post-steampunk sensibility, adds some nasty historical tones, some outright horror elements, and flings it all headlong into our laps without so much as a casual "look out". He tries, and he tries very, very hard. You can tell there was quite a bit of effort that went into The Demi-Monde, and that Mr. Rees wanted to make this an ambitious epic full of narrow escapes and frightening terror. He wanted to make the threats real and the story one that twisted and turned, with betrayals and an actually competent villain who won more than they lost. He wanted an epic, and that's what he tried to write.

        You'll notice a lot of "wanteds" and "trieds" in that last paragraph. If you think that's an accident, I regret to inform you it is most certainly not. 

        The Demi-Monde by Rod Rees is the story of a virtual reality environment used to train soldiers in "asymmetrical warfare". In the environment, the Demi-Monde of the title, technology is locked into the year 1789, and the world is split into several areas, each ruled by a different faction. Each faction has their own leader, a "dupe" of a real-world historical figure. The world is also crippled by warfare so that each faction has an immediate reason to go to war with the others, simulating the real-world conditions of asymmetrical warfare environments**. The biggest and most dangerous of these factions are a bunch of war criminals (and inexplicably, Aleister Crowley***) named the ForthRight. Due to some mysterious circumstances, Norma Williams (the President of the United States's daughter) gets herself trapped in the Demi-Monde. When this happens, the US military sends a young jazz singer named Ella Thomas into the Demi-Monde to save the First Daughter and bring her to the only remaining exit in a mission that I am completely justified in describing as "far too reminiscent of Escape from L.A.****, only with virtual reality".

         Ella is transported into the Demi-Monde to inhabit the role of a dupe that looks like it could be her spitting image, and is given the mission of navigating a world ruled by incurable psychopaths and inhabited by sentient programs used to a culture of betrayal and brutal politics to save Norma and, as things escalate, possibly the real world itself. But if she wants to survive, she will have to navigate several plots and counterplots, as well as two revolutions and the surprisingly savvy maneuvers of Heydrich's forces to find the exit and escape. 

         And I'm not going to lie, the book is interesting, and the right kind of trashy, but it's just so very bad. It's like finding the rare un-enjoyable B-movie, a book that desperately wants to be so many things and tries so hard to reach an ambitious narrative and thrilling pitch...but then falls flat on its face. And slides along like a stop-motion man in a student film. The issue with Rees's writing isn't so much that there's not a good plot in the whole mess, oh no, there are the makings of several good plots in The Demi-Monde: Winter. The issue is that they're buried in the five hundred page disaster that is the published book.

           But I'd be remiss not to present evidence. So why is this book a disaster?

        Well, let's start with the issues in Rees's writing. While there is nothing wrong with the technical side of the writing, there are serious issues with the tone and level of exposition Rees has decided to adopt. The tone alternates between actual writing, massive info-dumps on the denizens of the Demi-Monde, and historical in-jokes. Historical in-jokes that then have info-dumps explaining the nature of the in-jokes and why we should find them funny in case we don't actually know who these people are and how clever the author is for making the jokes. And then there are the neologisms and portmanteaus he uses. Oh god so many neologisms and portmanteaus. About half the concepts introduced have stupid names attached. This is just poor writing****. Furthermore, when the actual history and personality of the real-life figures veers from what Rees wants them to do, he waves his hand dismissively and does a half-assed job of explaining it away. The most notable of these is his take on Aleister Crowley, Crowley simply dismisses some of the quotes and acts attributed to him when they're brought up and continues on his way as an evil Nazi sorcerer.

         Since it's a nice segue, let's look at his characterization next. It's terrible. Ella's pretty much a Mary-Sue****** who swings between being a mouthpiece for the author's own views half the time and being irritatingly contrarian towards everyone she meets the other half. The other characters are equally inconsistent, seemingly adopting modes and attitudes as the plot requires and then abandoning them at the most convenient times. One in particular, Trixiebelle Dashwood, winds up growing out of her initial bratty upper-class character into a fine example of a strong woman, only to regress the moment the plot calls for her to be a brat again. The only characters who seem to develop or be at all thought out are a psychic con man named Vanka Maykov, and Baron Dashwood, Trixiebelle's father. But, of course, since the book isn't about them and they can't take any snobbish and sanctimonious stances on sociopolitical matters, the author has them both as secondary characters. Everyone else tends to be historical and inconsistent, or underdeveloped and inconsistent.

            Furthermore, the characters tend to be idiots. Ella frequently forgets what she's allowed to do with her powers and what plans she can make with them, abandoning them for the good of the continuing story. In the two most blatant examples, knowing full well that there's an evil plot afoot, Ella does nothing to try and circumvent it whatsoever. This becomes especially obvious when she's given a literal deus ex machina to play around with and instead of using the damn thing to make her goals that much easier, she instead completely ignores any possible options that would bring a swift end to the conflict and instead goes for the ones with very little impact. She has every advantage given to her, and yet instead of using them properly, she just conveniently forgets she has ways to circumvent the laws of her current reality. 

         Which leads us into the plot. Of the several plots going on, there are exactly two worth exploring-- Ella and Vanka's attempts to run a short-con on Heydrich's forces to spring the President's daughter, and the building rebellion in the Demi-Monde. Neither of these emerge until at least halfway through the book, and while each one would make a lovely book on their own, as a whole package, they suck. The plots do intersect and wind up dovetailing quite nicely, but both of them would have been much stronger on their own. As a whole, they merely wind up weighing each other down. It's like Rees couldn't decide between those and the numerous subplots he tries to introduce, so he tries to keep them going all at once. To add to this ADD theory of plot explosion, the various factions in the Demi-Monde seem to act a certain way only when it suits them. One of the final plot twists hinges on a non-aggression between two groups who are so ideologically opposed that any agreement between them is impossible, simply because...the plot says so? Things seem to happen more or less for this very reason.

           And finally, the ending. Or rather, the lack of one. Since this is the first book in a four-book series (and we'd have to assume a four-book series...this one's winter, the next one's called The Demi-Monde: Spring, and Rees has said the last book will be The Demi-Monde: Fall.), Rees has decided to end Winter on a cliffhanger where everyone is almost very nearly dead and/or routed. But it seems like a cop-out. He doesn't bother to resolve anything, just sort of lets the loose ends be loose ends with the empty promise that all of this will be resolved by the end of the series. Well, I highly doubt it.

           I suppose in the interest of objectivity, I should say that there are a lot of cool ideas in The Demi-Monde. I love what he's done with the world and the cultures, and it all feels like there's a good book in there somewhere. My issue is that the book that could be and the book that we wound up getting are two entirely different books. And since I can't review the book that could be, we have this book. Hopefully he'll have a better editor for the next three. 

        So in the end, don't read this book. Give it a miss. If you have to read it, wait until he finishes his little "masterwork" and then either steal it or pick it up from the library. I, for one, will certainly hamstring Mr. Rees in both his legs and make him crawl to the top of the Guggenheim Museum if he ever pulls something like this out of whatever festering hole he found this particular heap of offal in. He should know better, and if he doesn't, someone needs to teach him.

PHIL AND KAJA FOGLIO'S Agatha H. and the Clockwork Princess

Noir by K.W. Jeter
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
and other articles and sundries.

*For those of you who follow me regularly, I think I may have given the game (and my verdict) away using an expletive so soon. Don't tell anyone, would you? I certainly won't.
** Think of it as Civilization V on downers with a steampunk mod.
***A man who, despite being called "The Black Beast" and apparently being a massive creeper, has done more to further knowledge of mysticism in the modern era more than anyone, and believed more in open liberation than repressive theocracies. 
***You see? You see? Rod Rees couldn't even rip off the good Escape movie.
****And if anyone'd know, it'd be me. I've done this before, and was soundly trounced for it.
*****Contrary to popular belief, Mary-Sues are allowed to fail at stuff. And do. I don't know why people keep thinking otherwise.


  1. Holy crap, sir. Keep reviewing stuff, please! I may not agree with all your ideas and would urge a bit more mercy on your part (you need not cut so often but remind people instead that you wield a sharp critic's scalpel), but your writer's voice is awesome and fun and don't let anyone else tell you otherwise. One other suggestion: try posting review capsules first then the whole review. You're writing magazine length reviews in a medium that's better suited for snippets.

  2. I got a bit angry if only because I really, really wanted to like the book. I try very hard not to do something over, say, three-figures word-count wise usually. And I'm usually very kind. It's just when something hits, it HITS, you know?

  3. Understood! Thanks for clarifying. In regard to the review length, I find that, when I am reading text on a computer screen, it's easier for me to get into something when it starts with a short opening and synopsis and then gets into the full text below. Strangely, this is not true when I read a magazine or book. Anyway, keep up the good work!