*I received a free ARC of this novel with thanks to the author and Meg Eden at California Coldblood Books. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: In a state-of-the-art city where social media drives every aspect of the economy, a has-been Hollywood director and an investigative journalist race to uncover the relationship between a rising tide of violence and corporate corruption.
Bold, colorful, and dangerously seductive, Eutopia is a new breed of hi-tech city. Rising out of the American desert, it’s a real-world manifestation of a social media network where fame-hungry desperados compete for likes and followers. But in Eutopia, the bloodier and more daring posts pay off the most. As crime rises, no one stands to gain more than Eutopia’s architects–and, of course, the shareholders who make the place possible.
This multiple-POV novel follows three characters as they navigate the city’s underworld. Cedric Travers, a has-been Hollywood director, comes to Eutopia looking for clues into his estranged wife’s disappearance. What he finds instead is a new career directing–not movies, but experiences. The star of the show: A’rore, the city’s icon and lead social media influencer. She’s panicking as her popularity wanes, and she’ll do anything do avoid obscurity. Sacha Villanova, a tech and culture reporter, is on assignment to profile A’rore–but as she digs into Eutopia’s inner workings, she unearths a tangle of corporate corruption that threatens to sacrifice Cedric, A’rore, and even the city itself on the altar of stockholder greed.
Neon Empire follows four different character threads as they navigate the brightly neon, darkly amoral streets of Eutopia – a near-future, manmade, marketing-optimised city where views and likes are the currency and sex and violence are the products.
Each character gives us a different insight and perspective on the real workings of Eutopia: Cedric’s search for his missing wife shows us the manipulative marketing concepts driving the events in the city behind the scenes; Monteiro’s covert shadowing of the main characters gives us an ‘official’ view of the city’s corrupt roots via its law enforcement; A’rore’s hectic schedule of appearances, shock stunts and pre-booked paparazzi car chases shows us the outward glamour of the ‘celebrity’ influencers and the work that goes into maintaining the illusion; and finally, Sacha is the old-fashioned investigative journalist trying to make sense of it all and uncover what really drives the city beneath the social-media frenzy.
The setting and tone are breathtakingly authentic, plunging the reader straight into the world of bright lights and hard edges, where nothing is authentic – everything is staged, planned, analysed, dissected and polished. The people visiting the city, and its inhabitants, are merely commodities to be rated, traded and moved around the playing board of the streets. It is all about seeing and being seen; advertising campaigns, selfies and what’s ‘in’ at the given moment.
Drew Minh dives into great detail on what runs a social media marketing campaign in terms of analytics and data science, which is fantastically informative for those interested in the subject, but can feel a little heavy for those reading more for the action and intrigue of the corruption/investigation plot. In fact, Cedric’s missing wife becomes less and less of a focus as the story unfolds – we being to see her disappearance is just another small event in a constant livestream of choreographed reality.
Neon Empire is a detailed exposé of what feels increasingly less like science-fiction and more like social inevitability! Ideal for fans of futuristic corporate espionage and corruption storylines.
Enhanced reality is what people had come to expect because, growing up, their cultural references had been Hollywood blockbusters, where a realistic pop from a gun didn’t have the same visceral impact as a boom augmented by sound engineers on Pro Tools. Like the advent of sound, then color, then CGI and AR, what he was doing now felt like the next logical step in the evolution of storytelling. By breaking the fourth wall, actually stepping into people’s lives, making them participants in the story they were creating, they were pioneering the cinema of the twenty-first century.
– Drew Minh, Neon Empire
Neon Empire releases on Amazon on 10th September – preorder it here!