Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Diabolic

The Diabolic
by S.J. Kincaid
Recommended Ages: 14+

Nemesis is a Diabolic. That means she is a humanoid creature, bred and conditioned for one purpose: to protect the life of Sidonia Impyrian, the daughter of a senator of the galactic empire. She is a flawlessly engineered killing machine, biochemically programmed to love Donia and no one else. If anything were to happen to her, Nemesis would feel compelled to tear out the heart of whoever was responsible - but after that, her life would be worthless.

Up to a certain point, it isn't a bad way to live. Other than her memories from before she imprinted on Donia, of the awful things done to her and that she was forced to do, Nemesis leads a fairly soft life in the Impyrian family fortress, doted on by a sweet and loving girl, rather like a life-sized, living dolly. But then Donia's senator father falls out of favor with Emperor Randevald von Domitrian, by daring to take the wrong side of an ideological division within the empire.

The emperor is a devotee of the Helionic faith, which worships the Living Cosmos and considers all attempts to learn about science and technology to be blasphemy. Senator von Impyrian, meanwhile, thinks the empire is running out of time. The machines that keep its starships running are breaking down, and the starships themselves soon follow - with devastating results spreading across huge regions of space. No one understands how they work any more, let alone how to repair or replace them. Soon there won't be anywhere mankind can go, or any means for going there.

When the emperor decides to purge his realm of dissenting views, he begins by outlawing all Diabolics (except his own). Then he orders Sidonia to come to his court - which, if history is any guide, means she will either be a hostage to keep her father in line, or a scapegoat to suffer punishment for his crimes. Donia's family flouts both decrees, first by concealing the fact Nemesis was not put to death, then by sending her to court in Donia's place. After a crash course in comportment and a series of microsurgeries to change her appearance, Nemesis sets out on the most perilous assignment a Diabolic ever performed - protecting Sidonia by becoming her, when detection means a death sentence for both of them.

But that's just the setup for an exciting, complicated, and extremely romantic adventure in a totally engrossing, far-future fantasy world. Also involved - though I haven't space to explain how - are rival heirs to the imperial throne, among them a magnetic young man who feigns madness to survive in a royal family in which murder is almost an everyday occurrence. And though Nemesis has always been impatient with her mistress' unshakable belief that there is more to her than her deadly conditioning - that, perhaps, even a Diabolic might have a soul - it isn't until she meets Prince Tyrus that Nemesis starts to experience real emotions and explore the possibility that her life may have a purpose outside of protecting Donia.

The upshot is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most emotionally convincing and moving depictions of romantic love I have ever read in a science fiction book that, also surprisingly, doesn't stoop to the near-pornographic. If it deserves an Adult Content Advisory, it is mainly for frequent and extreme violence. There is a core of kindness and hopeful humanity at the heart of this book, and a story structure that times its surprises, its emotional revelations, and its stretches of suspense to perfection.

S.J. Kincaid is an American author, also known for her trilogy of Insignia, Vortex, and Catalyst, plus their prequel novella, Allies. This review, made possible by a pre-publication proof via NetGalley dot com, has convinced me Kincaid is a talent to follow. The book goes into U.S. release Nov. 1, 2016.

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