|The Demi-Monde: Winter
The Demi-Monde in the title of Rod Rees’ new novel – a novel that forms the first part of a quadrilogy – refers to an advanced virtual reality environment commissioned by the US government to simulate so-called “Asymmetric Warfare Environments” – places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the normal “rules” of war do not apply, and traditional armies find themselves somewhat out of their depths. The idea behind the Demi-Monde is that trainee soldiers will be immersed in the environment and receive training that will stand them in good stead when they find themselves in one of these AWEs.
The Demi-Monde, a circular world enclosed in an impenetrable boundary, is split into five sectors, each of which consists of three or four city-states modelled on real-world locations – London, Berlin, Warsaw. It is vastly overpopulated, and has a number of key conflict-points built in – religion, gender, colour – which makes it the ideal training environment, as it is a world that constantly exists on the verge of all-out war.
To make things more interesting, the world has been seeded with a couple of handfuls of real-world historical figures, usually psychopaths, whose drive for power feeds the constant strife and ensures that the tensions are kept, at the very least, on a constant simmer. People like Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of “the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”, Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and Lavrentiy Beria, the head of Stalin’s secret police.
As the novel opens, elements within the Demi-Monde have managed to shut it off from the Real World, trapping everyone inside, and allowing no-one else in, at which point it is discovered that the daughter of the President of the United States is trapped inside. Unable to pull the plug without killing the girl, the US government enlists young Ella Thomas to enter through a back-door left by the software’s creator and retrieve her. As Ella becomes enmeshed in the machinations of Heydrich and Aleister Crowley, she finds herself in the middle of a world at war, with only a handful of people on whom she can rely.
The Demi-Monde is a well thought-out and fully realised steampunk universe, with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE and Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND series. The novel, like most of Stephenson’s work, is huge in scope and contains a vast cast of characters, many of whom are plucked directly from the history books. A sprawling work it may be, but it manages to maintain its pace throughout. There are some edge-of-the-seat moments – the defence of Warsaw is a good example – that left me gasping for breath, and for more of the same.
It’s not, however, without its flaws. The biggest problem, in my point of view, is also a relatively small one, in terms of the overall plot. In designing a computer simulation to help train soldiers to fight in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military decided a 19th Century steam-driven world would be the best option. Why not a world that more closely modelled the environments they found themselves fighting in? Which is not to say that Rees should have created a virtual desert world, because that’s not nearly as interesting as the Victorian world he created, but that he should probably have come up with a more plausible explanation for the world he created. But it’s a minor quibble. WINTER, the first book in the Demi-Monde cycle, is a fine addition to the genre, and a wonderful taster of the three novels still to come.
On a more physical note, Quercus have produced an absolutely beautiful volume, not at all what you’d expect to find on the shelves of your local bookshop, but rather something you’d expect to pay a premium for from a small-press publisher. The jacketless printed cover with gold-leaf effect is a beautiful addition to any bookshelf. If author and publisher can maintain this standard for the rest of the series, THE DEMI-MONDE should become the cornerstone of a steampunk revival.