This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Right. Let’s take a look at Idyllian, Books 1 to 4 of the Amsterdam Institute, by R. Z. Held. This is something of a questionable entry to the SPSFC, since it is actually four novellas combined into a book, and “short story collections” were against the rules, but I’m letting it pass. What is the difference between four novellas assembled into a book, and a book with four parts that cover different bits of a story? You answer that for me and then we’ll talk. In the meantime this is my review so sit down and shut up.
Idyllian is an action-packed little set of war stories centering around the planet Idyll, and the people who live there. Conquered by the Pax Romana and basically left to deal with its own war fallout, Idyll is – well, kind of a mess. Our stories (the first two at least) focus on Genevieve, an Idyllian accidentally infected with nanobots when she touched a dead Pax Romana super-soldier (the dangerous breed known as ‘Installs’). A very cool and nasty premise that immediately calls to mind the dirty bullets and smallpox of real-world genocidal regimes.
Somehow managing to survive nanobot infection and thus able to pass herself off as an Install, Genevieve is roped into resistance / terrorist work by the rebel cells of Idyll who are far from the good guys here. Her nanites loaded up with a virus, she’s sent off to Pax Romana HQ like an Area 51 spaceship with an Apple Mac and Smith-Goldblum team in it to bring down the enemy. Once there, she finds it is significantly more complex and difficult than the movie Independence Day, which on reflection she probably hadn’t seen and it was just a simile I was using for no justifiable reason. Anyway my point is, she sees the enemy and they’re – just – kinda, you know, people.
From her interactions with the retired Pax Installs and the victims of nanite poisoning she is able to save – but for what? – Genevieve begins to realise that the world isn’t black and white. Her mission becomes foggy and her priorities confused. So does the reader, gotta say. I found the first two stories of this book to be action-packed but somewhat difficult to read. The scenes were great, the characters satisfyingly complex even if I didn’t particularly like them – and I think that was ultimately the point – but the overall arc of the plot got a bit lost in the woods. Cool woods, though.
By the third and fourth parts (books) of the story, we shift to a later part of the Pax Romana empire and timeline, and focus on Sienna, another victim of the Pax Romana’s arsenal of war. Those pesky nanobots.
If only there’d been someone to build and maintain them.
Together, Genevieve and Sienna have to overcome the changes being wrought on them by the nanobots and use their nanobot-superpowers (wings, etc.) to their advantage. It’s another high-action and earnestly engaging pair of stories, although ultimately I was a bit lost as we went. Again, the characters and the individual close-up scenes were really interesting, but it was difficult to string them together into a narrative I was invested in. On an even higher level, though, the book deals with themes like imperialism and the results of genocidal wars with a chilling effectiveness. So it’s really only that middle-layer, with the actual narrative thread in it, that is letting down the team in some way I can’t adequately explain.
Pyrus and Genevieve have just the weirdest and most awkward flirtatious energy ever and it made me quite uncomfortable. The relationships, like the characters, are a strong thread in these stories but there was still something that fell flat. There’s solid and unfettered makings of the rumpy-pumpy nasty beast with two (or more) backs here, with nice LGBT / polyam representation in the mix, but it doesn’t dominate the story. Which is good, because making it more central to the plot probably wouldn’t have helped. I give it a shopping trolley rattling sideways into a badly-parked Tesla out of a possible electric bullet train barrelling into a tunnel. That’s actually a higher score on the sex-o-meter than it sounds, because seeing Teslas getting all banged up by the tools of late-stage retail capitalism is a niche kink of mine.
This is a sci-fi action espionage adventure set against the backdrop of an expansionist and then declining genocidal imperial space regime. It’s got some gore on it, but a lot of it is more visceral psychological stuff or else flat-out military style violence. I think Del Toro would have a ball animating and crafting the nanite wing transformation and stuff, though. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
There’s minimal WTF here. Everything is well within sci-fi trope range and any mystery we have is the standard “why do humans genocide?” style mystery. More depressing than WTF-ey. One Mitch McConnell out of a possible Pale Man on the WTF-o-meter, and I think that was mainly because I was thinking about Del Toro just now.
My Final Verdict
Idyllian was an entertaining but ultimately un-gripping read for the page-count. I feel like the four novellas would be better served as separate pieces (as I assume they were originally), interspersed with some other material – artwork, some info-dumpage about the Pax Romana and the system of settled planets and how we got where we are … but that’s just me, and of course in that format they never would have made it to the SPSFC anyway. Three stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.