The Demi-Monde: Winter is the type of book that both inspires and discourages. On one hand, as an ambitious amalgam of punk (both steam- and cyber-) and of alternate history, Rod Rees’ novel serves as a reminder that one doesn’t need to be a cutting-edge futurist or esoteric polymath to produce compelling science fiction. The Demi-Monde: Winter also provides a good example of how one doesn’t need original ingredients to create a refreshing, satisfying dish.

On the other hand, the world-building mastery exhibited by Rees in his debut novel may cause many an aspiring writer of Tolkien-inspired fantasies and space operas to toss his or her once-treasured manuscript into the nearest bin in despair.

The first book in a planned tetralogy, The Demi-Monde: Winter follows Ella Thomas, a young jazz singer, as she is recruited to venture into a simulated environment, the Demi-Monde, to rescue the president’s daughter. Thomas is a capable, appealing protagonist, but the world she’s sent into—and its inhabitants—are the stars of Rees’ book. The Demi-Monde is a self-contained, virtual world created by the military to serve as a training ground for its soldiers in the asymmetric warfare experienced in urban environments. Much in the style of the Matrix films, once you plug in, you are there, and as the president’s daughter has discovered in the opening pages and Ella soon finds out, the Demi-Monde is a very, very nasty place. (Think Sim City: Hell on Earth edition.)

With its blend of beloved sci-fi genres, it’s fair to say that The Demi-Monde: Winter “has something for everyone,” but the cliché in itself doesn’t do justice to the caliber of Rees’ work.

In the effort to create a world of unrelenting tension, stress and struggle, no hot button has been left unpressed—religion, race, gender and population density have all been tuned to generate maximum conflict. Then, among the 32 million or so in-game characters (or “dupes”), there have been seeded a sprinkling of history’s greatest charismatic psychopaths, types given to commanding, conquering and getting people jailed, tortured and killed. Rees introduces the reader to the likes of Reinhard Heydrich, Lavrentii Beria and Archie Clement—figures less known to non-history buffs than the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Jesse James, but whose credentials as murderous psychopaths are nonetheless impeccable.

If it sounds complicated, it is. For that reason, the most impressive achievement of Rees’ freshman effort may well be in how deftly he avoids the plot-choking, mind-pummeling info dump that the unveiling of such a complex world usually entails, while nonetheless feeding the reader tons of information. Some of this is achieved structurally—each chapter has faux excerpts describing some aspect of one or more of the competing factions in the Demi-Monde. For the rest, Rees lets his protagonist’s learning curve mirror the reader’s own.

With its blend of beloved sci-fi genres, it’s fair to say that The Demi-Monde: Winter “has something for everyone,” but the cliché in itself doesn’t do justice to the caliber of Rees’ work. After all, if those somethings aren’t sufficiently interwoven, the reading experience can be chaotic and disjointed, less of an immersion than a sporadic dipping. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Much like the characters who endure the often-harrowing events within its pages, readers will exit The Demi-Monde: Winter looking forward to what The Demi-Monde: Spring will bring.

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