My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reviewed for the Masquerade Crew.
Artificial Absolutes attempts no small feat by fusing a cyberpunk thriller and a space opera adventure. Mary Fan largely succeeds with this ambitious task, weaving together a compelling thriller with interesting characters that is a good foundation for a series of novels to come.
Artificial Absolutes follows two principal characters, Devin and Jane Colt. They work corporate jobs in the family business, a powerful outfit called Quasar on a sophisticated and developed Inner Core planet. Neither of them have great love for their jobs, and both labor under the thumb of their overbearing father Victor Colt. Devin has a shady and possibly blood-soaked past, the prodigal son who turned his life around to burn what's left of it as a soulless executive. Nursing guilt for past misdeeds, Devin tries his hardest to be the “good son.” Jane dreamed of being a musician and a composer, but after those dreams eluded her she surrendered to the expectations of her family and took a job as a low-level drone. She craves something unpredictable, anything to break up the monotony of her existence.
The action starts when Devin goes to propose to his pop-star fiancee and she freezes, literally. Wondering what's going on with her, he launches an investigation into her past and uses his underworld connections to find out more. At the same time, Jane's close friend Adam is kidnapped right before her eyes. She narrowly escapes, wondering what could have happened to him and what the motive could be for snatching a poor seminary student of the futuristic religion known as Via. Soon a conspiracy becomes apparent as records are faked, evidence disappears, and technology turns against them. Framed for multiple crimes he didn't commit, Devin becomes a fugitive as his investigation starts to uncover troubling details about his fiancee. Jane forces herself along for the ride.
Evading warships, hiding out in seedy space stations, and visiting planets ravaged by lawless civil war, the Colt siblings realize that they face a malevolent and dangerous force that all the hackers are calling No Name. As No Name is a villain that can manipulate any technology and bend all the information in the galaxy's Networld against them, the Colts are outgunned and running for their lives. The plot turns and twists as more and more layers come off of the conspiracy behind No Name make Artificial Absolutes reminiscent of classic techno-thrillers in the grand cyberpunk tradition. The Colts' galaxy-trotting adventures also bring some space opera flavor to it all, but some of these locales are far more fleshed out and detailed than others. In any case, the plot is an intriguing and exciting one. Even if some of the twists are a bit predictable, others come right out of left field. The actions of the Colts and their allies manage to outmaneuver No Name and how No Name manages to strike back in devious ways gives the story a lot of momentum as the conspiracy begins to come into focus.
The Colts themselves are also well fleshed-out characters. Both are given journeys, but very different interior ones. Jane gets the wild adventure she's always wanted and more, and goes from being merely a brash tagalong to a resourceful adventurer in her own right. Devin manages to face and conquer some of his past troubles and guilt, emerging on the other side as someone who finds himself after all he has faced and suffered through. This novel is an excellent starting point for both and I look forward to seeing where the author will take the characters next after this introduction.
The novel does have some issues, though, and they are intertwined. The author has a tendency to unfurl a character's entire backstory right upon introducing them. This makes the first few chapters of the book exceptionally difficult, as it feels like all backstory and exposition and can make the reader feel overwhelmed or bogged down. This continues to happen at a few select points throughout the book, as certain key enemies and allies alike of the Colts are given this sort of treatment. While some of this is unavoidable, Mary Fan is actually quite skilled at providing interesting details and implications about the characters' lives through their actions and dialogue so much of this exposition seems unnecessary. Further, it often derails the pacing and suspense of the plot by diving into flashbacks at crucial moments when so much is going on in the story. This never really becomes a major flaw, but the novel could have benefited with some streamlining and from Fan simply relying on her skillful deployment of dialogue, character interaction, and implication to get the job done.
I recommend Artificial Absolutes to anyone that likes a good cyberpunk or adventure story, as it really works as either. It has solid characters and a fine-tuned plot that will keep the pages turning.
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