*I received a free ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.*
Blurb: “…Death and the stillness of death are the only things certain and common to all in this future…”
Rose is dying. Her body is wasted and skeletal. She is too sick and weak to move. Every day is an agony and her only hope is that death will find her swiftly before the pain grows too great to bear.
She is sixteen years old.
Rose has made peace with her fate, but her younger sister, Koren, certainly has not. Though all hope appears lost Koren convinces Rose to make one final attempt at saving her life after a mysterious man in a white lab coat approaches their family about an unorthodox and experimental procedure. A copy of Rose’s radiant mind is uploaded to a massive super computer called Aaru – a virtual paradise where the great and the righteous might live forever in an arcadian world free from pain, illness, and death. Elysian Industries is set to begin offering the service to those who can afford it and hires Koren to be their spokes-model.
Within a matter of weeks, the sisters’ faces are nationally ubiquitous, but they soon discover that neither celebrity nor immortality is as utopian as they think. Not everyone is pleased with the idea of life everlasting for sale.
What unfolds is a whirlwind of controversy, sabotage, obsession, and danger. Rose and Koren must struggle to find meaning in their chaotic new lives and at the same time hold true to each other as Aaru challenges all they ever knew about life, love, and death and everything they thought they really believed.
Writing this review fresh from finishing Aaru I find myself uncharacteristically at a loss for how to describe it. I really liked it, but was left with a confused impression of what the book was about and what story it was telling. The cover suggests a horror story, and the theme of virtual reality certainly wouldn’t preclude that, but this is not a horror story. Nor is as uncomplicated as suggested by the blurb, which prompts the assumption that Elysian Industries are the antagonists with a secret agenda (this may still prove to be the case, but in the novel the ‘system’ turns out to be made up of different individuals with their own motivations, much as in real life).
The plot involves sci-fi elements, and the setting of Aaru itself is all fantasy, but there are als aspects of action-thriller in the tech-stalking storyline. The portrayal of both the teen-romance and the parental characters (ciphers unfortunately, one ‘angry drunk’ and one ‘religious automaton’, but neither with much individuality) put me in mind of YA fiction, and the focus on a pre-teen main character’s journey seemingly confirmed that. But then the graphic Magic Man sections, with their paedophilia and rape fantasies, would generally mark this adult fiction in my opinion.
Also there are many themes explored here: religion (or lack thereof); what makes a person ‘me’; the ethics of a virtual afterlife. The author does not try to oversimplify these issues either; just as I thought I had grasped the authorial stance on an afterlife, the perspective flipped and I realised that I was being presented with the differing sides to the argument, but with no definitive right or wrong (except for Magic Man of course. He is ALL wrong!).
There is obviously a lot of thought about death and bereavement, and the author presents this in all of it’s raw, beautiful, unglamour. The pain and distress feels authentic and (from the reviews I have seen) resonates strongly with readers who have experienced devastating loss. As does the ray of hope that Aaru represents for the soothing of death’s sting.
Overall it struck me that this setting, and these characters, have so much potential that the author simply has so many great stories to tell here that the book is bursting with them. And whilst making it trickier for me to pigeonhole it neatly, that is also the book’s strongest selling point. As I said at the start, despite or perhaps because of the genre confusion, I really really liked Aaru and on finishing it I immediately checked whether the author had released the next installment yet.
The ideas are presented in a fresh new way, and the possibilities for the plot and character development are very exciting. Rose and Koren are both engaging protagonists, and their reactions are natural, whilst not always predictable. There are so many issues here yet to explore, and so many questions still to answer, that I have very high expectations for the rest of the series.
Confounding a reader’s genre expectations is a risky business, as it has high odds of leading to disappointment, but when done well it always leads to the kind of books that stay with you afterwards. I have a feeling that the Aaru Cycle may well fall into this category.
Is this it? She thought in some confusion. Am I dead?
She waited. Then she waited some more for something to occur that felt…she wasn’t sure…death-like? Nothing really appeared to happen, but Rose could not be positive, not at all certain what ‘dead’ was supposed to feel like.
“How long are you going to lie there?” a bemused female voice asked. “You’ve arrived, you know… Wouldn’t you like to get up and look around? I’ve been waiting for you.”
– David Meredith, Aaru