Ella Thomas is a down on her luck eighteen-year-old – just days away from not being able to pay rent – when she auditions for a gig as a jazz singer. After completing of a rigorous interview process she finds out that she has been recruited by an arm of the military for an assignment that only she is qualified to perform. The president’s daughter has become trapped in an immersive computer simulation designed to acclimate soldiers to realistic combat scenarios. A glitch in the system has left the soldier’s (whom we don’t really care about) and the president’s daughter unable to wake from the deadly game. A backdoor in the system will allow, only, Ella to go in and attempt extracting them from the simulation.
I had a difficult time getting past the first few chapters of The Demi-Monde Winter. What I read seem plagued by improbable dialogue, and a few paragraphs of particularly ill-constructed Southern dialect almost did me in. But, I pushed through to read a bit more, and as I settled into the story I found a cleverly constructed alternate world and an engaging, if also largely flawed, read. The Demi-Monde world has been purposely constructed by American military leaders as home of the most vile and destructive political leaders in history (think of Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich joining forces or battling against those such as Aleister Crowley, Empress Wu, Toussaint L’Ouverture, et al) to create the most intense and warlike environment to train soldiers. It is the worst place imaginable for any human being to be trapped, and there is a fair amount of hostile language toward women and various races/ethnic groups. It is appropriate within the construct of the world Rees has created, but it also got very, very old.
Ella provides the framework for the action of the novel, however (unfortunately) she isn’t the main character, but one of a few others whose stories are told in detail. They are all mostly genre archetypes like, the spoiled brat who will probably eventually come into her own (Norma), the shady rogue who slowly discovers that he has a heart (Vanka), and the genteel girl who given the opportunity develops into a radical badass (TrixieBell). Naturally, as the story develops , the downfall is that not all of the characters and narrative arcs are plausible or even as compelling as the others. I enjoyed Ella and Vanka quite a bit (the most palatable of the personalities), and was happiest when the narrative followed them or when their stories overlapped with the others. Readers are challenged to process a lot of information – names of religions; various constructed regions of the Demi-Monde with their particular quirks, rulers and animosities; and the techno-babble of the mechanics computer simulation.
The Demi-Monde Winter is an ambitious undertaking with lots of moving parts, and an inventive storyline. It doesn’t always succeed in all that it seeks to accomplish, but it is entertaining in spots, and has a killer cliffhanger. It’s also the first in a quartet of “seasonal” books.