by John Courtney Grimwood, 354 pages
The story works by the strength of its premise. In this case, that’s an alternate history where World War One reamined a localized Balkan conflict, and the Ottoman Empire persisted into the twenty first century as a prosperous, high-tech and influential entity. Most of the fun and interest in the book comes from that premise folding itself out, from the first hints of difference to a full blooded immersion in the alternate timeline.
The longer-lasting Ottoman polity isn’t perfect by any means. There are issues with women’s rights in an Islamic society, although in a generally less severe and much more subtly conveyed manner than much writing. There is also a major issue with corruption, linked to all kinds of violence and general intrigue. The ambiguity of the backdrop links nicely to the protagonist, who is across the story discovering his own past and true nature, what he’s capable of and what he uses that for.
The actual plot isn’t terribly compelling. The murder mystery that girds the main story is a snooze, at once generic, arbitrary and predictable. To the strength of the story it seems to recognize this issue, and downplays the expect we’re expected to be invested in the revelation of and defat of the final villain. Instead, the setup serves as an opportunity to watch fairly well developed characters interact in a fabulously evocative setting, with an array of flashbacks that play with motifs of human violence and human cybernetic modification.
The larger story plays out a lot like classic cyberpunk, with the modified protagonist, the somewhat bleak atmosphere, the heavy connection between political intrigue, class barriers and gritty murder in the street. I found this work a lot more tolerable than most cyberpunk, however, and ultimately quite compelling. At the end I have to attribute that to the setting, the way it’s used to give an energetic Islamic political presence to the story without bogging down on the specific political issues of our time. It makes a quite effective narrative tied to a very unique science fictional atmosphere. My first Grimwood, and makes me curious to read more.
Similar to and worse than: China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh
Similar to and better than: Gridlinked by Neal Asher