‘Winter’ the first book of Rod Rees’ ‘Demi-Monde’ series was one of my favourite books of 2011. Whilst it’s central premise was flawed – Why would the modern US army need to populate its combat forces training programme with eminent Victorians? – the story told within its confines was entertaining and often thought-provoking. The Demi-Monde is a virtual world, in which facsimiles of historical figures live alongside one another, most notably the world’s megalomaniacs and general bad eggs. So, Robspierre, Beria and Aleister Crowley live and fight with Torquemada, Mao and Heydrich. Members of the real world can enter and interact with the hostile world of the Demi-Monde, sedated and wired up, much like in the Virtual Reality episode of Red Dwarf. Only now the real-life daughter of the President of the USA has ended up stuck in the Demi-Monde, and the focus of the first book was getting her back
So it was great excitement that I opened ‘Spring’ the unsurprising title for Book 2 in the series. I read ‘Winter’ over Christmas 2010, and after reading the fist 150 pages of ‘Spring’ I wondered whether perhaps my enjoyment of it had been down to a surfeit of Eggnog in my bloodstream. The opening chapters of ‘Spring’ are pretty bad, and combined with my heightened expectation, I found myself utterly dismayed. I suggested in my review of ‘Winter’ that it had more cliffhangers than an entire series of ‘Lost’, and sadly Rees seems to have taken the same approach to plot development as the show’s creators.
‘Spring’ completely changes the playing field, and messes up all the assumptions I’d made when reading the first book, making it largely redundant. There are new prophecies, a complete character reconstruction, new mythology, new species and, oh yes, vampires… I do have a bit of thing against vampires; they are often used to cover up a dearth of writing talent and fresh ideas, but Rees has both in abundance. Why he felt the need to add blood-suckers, I don’t know. (Technically all denizens of the Demi Monde were vampires, but these new ones are the black-caped, pale-skinned with pointy-teeth variety) So from the beginning I was lost. If the author can change things so fundamentally, with so little justification, why bother investing any emotional energy in the characters, or caring what might happen to them?
One of the better aspects of ‘Winter’ was Rees mirroring of real-world political and religious institutions. He exaggerated them to the point of nonsense, but this enabled him to probe their limitations and failings. In ‘Spring’ Rees is too heavy handed; most of his characters are so sexist/racist/homophobic or just plain nasty, it’s hard to see it as an examination of anything. You can’t help but start to question the author’s motives for making such puerile observations. As I read, my distaste snowballed. Some of the factions and concepts have amusing (Jasper FForde like) names, which I enjoyed in the first book. Impuritanism, HerEticalism and HimPerialism, had some justification, but soon just about every new concept in the book is marked by a collection of randomly allocated upper and lower case letters, just to make a weak play on words. The nadir of this idea is the Man2Nam, a practice of one of the races of the Demi-Monde who’s men like to ‘exchange bodily essences’.
So, it’s fair to say, after two hundred pages, I was pretty fed up with this book. It was only the quality of ‘Winter’ that kept me reading. Things do get better. Once I had become accustomed to the dramatic change in storyline, I found myself quite enjoying what was happening, but I still find myself speed reading, skimming over bits just to get things over and done with. Part of the reason for this is that some of the characters have the most execrable dialects, making dialogue unbearable. The Doge (Catherine-Sophia) is so hard to follow, Rees has to explain to the reader in plain English what she just said. He even observes that her dialect is irritating. If an author finds himself telling the reader one of his characters is annoying, surely alarm bells should start ringing. I could go on…
So the scales have well and truly fallen from my eyes for this series. A book I loved has been trashed by an ill conceived sequel. In popular TV series, the writers never quite know whether a new season is going to be commissioned, and when it is they have to hastily alter endings, or find convoluted ways of reopening boxes that have been firmly closed (For a good example of this, watch series two and three of ‘Heroes’.) Rees has no excuse; clearly he intended his story to be told in four parts. Yet ‘Spring’ reads like he has absolutely no idea how to continue what he started. As I drifted towards the end of ‘Spring’, I figured that there was enough good in it to warrant reading ‘Summer’. Loyalty will probably see that I do. But then in the book’s final pages, the twist (and it won’t spoil anything to say this), a twin brother appears! Another sure sign that Rees has run aground. Reader loyalty is one thing, but what about authors’ obligations to their readers? I feel betrayed.