*I received a free ARC of this novel, with thanks to the author. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: “… Let them have everything – health, food, a place to live, entertainment. They are and remain unhappy and low-spirited for the demon waits and waits…”
Rose is a Veda.
In Elysian Industries’ virtual paradise of Aaru, that means she’s practically a goddess. She is immortal. She is powerful. A limitless paradise is hers and her friends’ to command. They are free from sickness and pain, old age and death. She should be ecstatic over her prestige and privilege, but the gilded utopia has lost its luster.
In a reality where anything can be hers with a thought, and Rose can master any skill instantly with nothing but her imagination, to what can she still aspire? She has all of eternity to fill, but what will her purpose be? Rose adores her sweet, Latin boyfriend, Franco. She loves wiling away endless immaculate days with her friends, but shouldn’t there be more to life than mere play? Also, Rose is dogged by deep concern for her little sister, Koren, the Elysian Industries spokes-model and reality star back in the “Before” world.
Though Koren is wealthy, famous, and idolized by millions of adoring fans, her life is spinning out of control. Her parents’ marriage is on the rocks, and the boyfriend of her dreams, Jonas Perry, seems suddenly indifferent. Koren finds her celebrity increasingly isolating, her grueling work schedule exhausting, and the constant scrutiny of her personal life unwelcomed and intrusive. To top it all off, she has regular nightmares about the death of her friend, Kiku, and the still-at-large Magic Man who nearly stole away her everything.
Koren and Rose have more to fear from this quarter than they know. Magic Man’s obsession with the teenage idol has not lessened, and he is far from defeated. With vital aid from an unexpected source, his nefarious schemes to make Koren his own and to hack the Aaru mainframe are on track and moving forward. Unless the sisters can thwart his sinister designs, everyone and everything the girls hold dear could be destroyed.
First and foremost, Aaru: Halls of Hel is the sequel to Aaru and if you haven’t read that then I strongly suggest you do so first because it contains much of the world- and character-building setup that led into this story.
It took me a little while to find my way back into Aaru this time round, as a lot of the early focus of the book is on Rose’s disquiet with the idyllic quality of her existence and how it translates to a life purpose to strive for, whilst poor Koren’s world is falling apart in every way possible with desertions, betrayals, and constantly being used to further other people’s goals. This became a bit dispiriting as one of our main characters drifted while the other became increasingly distraught.
However the glimpses of ‘other’ Koren hooked me in and tied together the superhero rescuer Sister and the vulnerable innocent, with the horrific shadow of sadistic paedophile Magic Man looming above them all. (A trigger warning here that there are vivid portrayals of physical, mental and sexual violence that can be very disturbing, but are necessary in the context of the plot.) Then, once the latest technology advances were introduced to Koren and Hel was introduced to the reader, the pace picked up and the action and tension built relentlessly.
I was particularly fascinated here by the exploration of the ethical dilemmas of how to deal with dangerous individuals in an environment shaped by the minds it contains; who has the right to make the decisions about who is ‘worthy’ or ‘competent’ to participate in society; and what to do with those that remain outside of the accepted society. Likewise the way in which these issues feed religious debate is explored here in both Aaru and Before, from different viewpoints. There are clear parallels with both Paradise Lost and Frankenstein in the ethical problems facing Elysium Industries and in Hel’s situation.
The story ends on a cliffhanger with David Meredith’s virtual heaven now divided and plunged into chaos. I can’t wait to find out what happens next, and am emotionally invested in the outcomes for the characters, particularly Aaru’s very own female Harvey Dent!
If you enjoy sci-fi / fantasy based on virtual reality with some emotional and philosophical issues and a hefty splash of horror then you should visit Aaru…but make sure you leave a window open to return…
Koren thrashed helplessly. She convulsed in her invisible prison as her captor callously dismembered her thoughts and dissected her fondest recollections, as he pawed roughshod through her memories and ogled her shattered dreams. Koren felt her mind breaking, her soul splintering. The ravaging of her mind was so excruciating she begged for death, but no relief was to be had that way – not anymore.
“Rose…” She beseeched voicelessly into the nothingness, mind wracked and riven, spirit shredded and torn. “Please…Help me…Save me…”
But there was no one to hear her, and Koren knew it. There was no hope in her plea – only desolation. The assault on her quintessence, her spiritual core, continued unabated. All Koren could do was endure and pray the loneliness would take her once more.
It was preferable to the pain.
– David Meredith, Aaru: Halls of Hel
Aaru: Halls of Hel is available on Amazon right now!