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.
I just finished reading Mantivore Dreams, The Arcadian Chronicles Book 1, by S. J. Higbee, and I have some thoughts.
Truly this was a sci-fi after my own heart. Set in a strange human-settled alien world sufficiently long after planetfall that the whole place has a wacky post-apocalyptic relic-tech feel to it, complete with a dusty old internet, it felt very old-school (John Wyndham, John Christopher, all the Johns really) while remaining very fresh and original. Kyrillia’s mother gives Ro’s dad a run for his money in the vile arsehole stakes, by the way – just to drop in a reference to another story. Sorry.
What starts out as a classic story about a misunderstood and unfairly treated young adult surrounded by ignorant and shitty hudsons quickly develops into something more compelling and less frustrating, although I was worried for a while and might have given up based on some of my other reading experiences if I wasn’t committed to reading the whole book. At a very early point I unilaterally decided that if the story didn’t end in a spree I was not going to give it more than three stars, because that’s how I roll. Beneth and Felina could go un-spreed, I decided. Maybe. But the rest had to go.
Well, it didn’t end in a spree, and here we are. I was still satisfied, although I was once again sorely tempted to stop reading at the conclusion of the trial, and just pretend everything went fine from then on because I was concerned things were still going to go bad. Look, I have trust issues, okay?
What I’m trying to get at here is that the characters, and the setting, were really well done – the first act was a flawless, and painful, setup for things to come. I cared about the injustice, I knew who was right and who was wrong, and I was very clear on the stakes and the series of events. Even when things started getting a bit weird (I haven’t even talked about Vrox yet), I knew what was happening.
The middle part of the story is a literal hero’s journey as Kyrillia and Seth leave the shithole they started in and travel to several other shitholes looking for the least-shitholey place they can. It’s an excellent showcase of a strange world, at once familiar and alien, and the dangers both human and otherwise that they face. It also develops into a little bit of a love story, which I wasn’t expecting but found very charming indeed.
The hints of backstory are really nicely done. The settler ship they all arrived on, and the way the ranks and positions aboard the ship laid a blueprint for the social structure of the new world, is really cool. The slang was a little jarring and clangy, but I’m going to magnanimously allow it. And the family names were a bit on the nose, but tell that to the Carters and Smiths and Wainwrights and Bakers of the world.
Even more importantly, as someone who loves an infodump, I was well satisfied with the unexplained snippets and the drip-fed background here. It was done perfectly and didn’t leave me wanting more (except in the best possible way), despite not really having any infodumps at all. I would have happily read some, but they weren’t needed.
The third act brings it all together, as Kyrillia and Seth arrive at the Main Antagonist’s place and we find out what it was all about. Why was Kyrillia’s life the way it was, how did Vrox end up in her head (I still didn’t really talk about Vrox, did I?), and what happens next … all of it is tied up and explained. Okay, I feel maybe Higbee did Kestor a little dirty at the end there, but to be fair he was a bit slimy from the start so it checks out. I’m not going to let it bother me.
Not much more to say about this. It was a solidly crafted story with good characters and a really excellent setting and plot. Worth a read.
The whole Collaring thing is rapey as Hell, but aside from that, and a pair of rapey highway robbers, and a bit of generic background horny (GBH) … there wasn’t a whole lot of sex in this one. Mainly because every time Kyrillia’s pulse-rate went above 100 BPM, Vrox started steaming up the metaphorical car window and she stopped the show. Resultantly, this one scores a “walk the dog” yo-yo trick out of a possible “dogging” exhibitionism thing. And don’t worry, I’m getting to Vrox.
The alien ecosystem was pretty brutal, although we didn’t see much of it up-close and personal. And there were a few instances of human-on-human violence and a whole lot of assorted gross mistreatment of Vrox (just wait, okay), but ultimately I’m giving this one a single quivering flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.
So Kyrillia has this “mantivore lord”, named Vrox, who just sort of sits in her head and occasionally interjects with a bit of variably-relevant life experience. What’s the deal with that? Mantivores, essentially, are the local sentients that had been displaced by humans but were still sort of around, but mostly extinct. I won’t explain further, since it is a very neat part of the story and it was really disorienting at the start, and I wouldn’t want to rob the reader of that. As I also mentioned, the post-tech bio-internet world is equal parts alien and post-apocalyptic and I really liked it, but that wasn’t really WTF. Still, it was fun to read. Mantivore Dreams gets a Black Lagoon out of a possible Craggle Lagoon on the WTF-o-meter. Yes. Yes, I went there.
My Final Verdict
Nothing much more to say here. I wanted this world and its setting to be the same world we saw in Between Mountain and Sea, just the progeny of another ship. I think maybe in my headcanon that will be what this is, but it’s not important. Four stars!
 They’re like hicks, only in a science-fiction context. I am not going to apologise for this. You apologise for this.