This was my own fault. I’d been reading a lot of books that were good, but not very memorable. I wanted something that would get my juices flowing, and that meant either a really good book… or a really bad one. Bad books are much easier to find.
I’d taken a look at the The Demi-Monde: Winter a few weeks before, and I’d given up because its writing, even in just the first few pages, was wretched—full of cliches and clunkily unpoetic. But then, wanting a bad book, I turned back. And I got a bad book. I got everything I was asking for and much, much more. I barely made it through a hundred of Rees’s dense, awful pages before I had to put it back down. This review will be less a review than a catalog of what makes this book so bad. Take a deep breath.
In the year 2018, the “Demi-Monde” is an elaborate computer simulation made to train military cadets to fight in “asymmetric warfare environments” like Iraq and Afghanistan. The bulk of the action, as you might guess, will take place inside the simulation.
So far, this is a solid, if boring, idea. It’s also rather dramatically weak. Militaries use a lot of simulations, and they use them because there’s no risk for the participants. But “no risk involved” is not a good recipe for a thrilling novel, so Rees has to turn up the heat. Unfortunately, a concussed 5-year-old could come up with a more coherent imaginary world.
First of all, there’s a critical flaw in the Demi-Monde itself: if you die inside it, you die in real life, much like the Matrix. That makes it a more interesting place to set a thriller, but an utterly ludicrous method of training your army personnel. If a simulation is actually life-threatening, what’s the point of it? Just send your recruits straight into battle, where at least their deaths might not be entirely in vain.
Next up in Rod Rees’s cavalcade of bad ideas: the fact that the Demi-Monde is restricted to technology from the 1870s. A military simulation in 2018 teaches its participants how to use muskets. By gaslight. Ugh.
To make matters more ridiculous, all of the computer-controlled NPCs in the Demi-Monde (called “Dupes” or duplicates) are vampires. Why? Because the moronic simulation-designers needed a reason for everyone to be fighting all the time. And yes, they made a point of modeling their Dupes on history’s most notorious murderers and villains, but they needed another reason. They also programmed religious conflict literally into the dupes’ DNA, but they needed yet another reason for everyone to fight all the time. So they made the Dupes vampires, who must consume a lot of human blood every day in order to survive. Unfortunately the Dupes don’t have any human blood, only the army recruits (called, excruciatingly, “neoFights”) have blood. So every time the army sends in recruits, the Dupes capture them and turn them into living blood farms. The army can’t unplug them or wake them up because they’ll die.
Here’s another moronic detail: before the soldiers-in-training are dropped into the Demi-Monde, they are each implanted with a nano-computer that gives them a nearly unlimited store of knowledge about combat techniques, important people, terrain, etc. Remember, the Demi-Monde is a training ground for some other greater war. So, as I found myself asking, why don’t they use the nanocomputers to train their soldiers instead of this stupid simulation?
After considering all of these painfully stupid facets of this painfully stupid premise, it becomes clear that the Demi-Monde is not a simulation and was never intended to be. If it was, it would be the worst, most idiotic simulation in the history of the world. There’s a big plot twist down the road, and Rees thinks that we readers are as stupid as his characters (more on that in a minute), and can’t see it coming. But, of course, we can.
“Why don’t you just cut bait and close it down?” says one of the book’s protagonists, Ella Thomas.
“Somehow,” the idiot Demi-Monde designer replies, “Norma Williams, the daughter of the president, has become lost in the Demi-Monde.”
Ella Thomas is an 18-year-old black female jazz singer and genius. She talks like this, “‘Are you on the level? You’re not just blowing me shit… winding me up?’” and she thinks like this, “Jazz was so unhip it had a limp,” and also like this, “I ain’t got a ‘racial aspect.’ I’ve got a black skin.”
And then sometimes she talks like this, “I don’t wish to seem brutal,” and sometimes she thinks like this, “He looked like an undertaker, though his long, Roman nose, his dark button eyes that snarled out at Ella from behind shaded glasses and his oiled black hair made him an extremely aggressive-looking undertaker.”
In other words, she’s not very well-developed because Rod Rees is hopeless at writing a character with a single voice, especially when that character is an 18-year-old black woman. I mean, he’s hopeless at writing in general (eyes don’t “snarl,” and definitely not from behind shaded glasses intended to block those eyes from view), but he’s really bad at characters and especially really bad at Ella.
Ella is supposed to be a genius, but she is in fact really really stupid. When we first meet her, she’s spent a full week auditioning for a gig singing jazz for the Army. That week has included a battery of physical and psychological tests, and field tests such as “building … a raft from a couple of old oil drums, some driftwood and a length of rope and use it to float across a river.”
After all this, an officer lets it slip that she’s going to the Demi-Monde. Instead of cottoning onto the fact that she’s been lied to, this is the sum total of her thinking on the issue:
“Demi-Monde? wondered Ella. Weird name for a club.”
Yes, because a) the Army hires a ton of jazz singers, and b) they all have to be to good raft-builders. You moron.
The marquee Dupe in the Demi-Monde is modeled after Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler’s underlings and the architect of the Holocaust. This kind of thing—real people interacting with history’s worst monsters—is ostensibly the big idea behind the book. But, in Rees’s hands, it flops.
Before the idiot Army honchos send Ella into the Demi-Monde, they sit her down with a copy of Heydrich’s Dupe. This is quite stupid, because it will show her the kind of evil she’ll be up against, but of course, those men are quite stupid, so I guess it makes sense. In any case, Ella’s meeting with Heydrich is predictably ludicrous and poorly written.
The honchos, for whatever reason, want Ella to get Heydrich to explain who he is and what he’s done. Again, this is a young black woman speaking to the man who created the Holocaust, a racist and bigot if ever there was one. Here’s a brief synthesis of their conversation. Heydrich speaks first:
“I am wondering why I should be obliged to discuss my career with … a member of a more primitive race.”
… “I understand you are an officer, Herr Heydrich. Then surely your duty as an officer is to help those of lesser ability?”
… “Very well.”
Excuse me, what? Why would the job of military officers, especially NAZI officers, be to “help those of lesser ability”? Why would a Nazi officer want to help anybody? And why does that fool him into doing what she wants? Why would he talk to her at all? Why would discussing his career help her anyway? NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE AT ALL.
This kind of face-to-face conflict with one of history’s most evil men appears to be the emotional heart of the novel, and yet it’s neither interesting nor realistic, and it shows Rees’s utter lack of intensity and creativity.
The Final Accounting
I could keep going, about the misconceived characters, more holes in the plot, gaping logical inconsistencies patently ignored or not seen by both author and editor (and remember, I only read the first hundred pages)—but 1500 words is enough.
This ill-conceived novel is the first of four that Rees has planned (and evidently already written) about the Demi-Monde. Obviously, this project should never have been accepted by a major publishing house—I don’t honestly know how they got past the first few pages.
The Demi-Monde: Winter also got nominated as an Indie Next book, which is where I heard about it. In the Indie Next blurb, the recommending bookseller compares Rees to Neal Stephenson, which would be a capital crime if I ran the world.
The difference between Rod Rees and Neal Stephenson, or any good author, is that Rees offers absolutely nothing new. There’s nothing new in his prose, and there’s nothing new in his idea of the Demi-Monde. It’s the Matrix, minus a believable reason for existing, plus some random paranormal/steampunk elements, because, hell, that’d make a cool book, right?