Disclaimer: not only do I know the author personally, but also this book was sent to me by the author as a gift. It was not meant for review. But I’m reviewing it anyway! Bwa-ha-ha!
Why I Read It: This book has been sitting in my TBR pile for a year. Originally, when I’d heard that Miller had self-published her thesis novel, I thought I’d download it to my Kindle and read it at my leisure. But when I congratulated her on the publication, she said she was sending me a hard copy, which threw me because until that moment, I didn’t even know there WERE hard copies! But lo’ and behold, a hard copy arrived on my doorstep not long after. I’m even mentioned in the acknowledgements, which personally astounds me, since Miller was a solid year ahead of me in grad school and I didn’t get a lot of opportunity to read her work. But I did get a small opportunity, and she was graceful enough to acknowledge my meager efforts. Sending me a copy of her book was her way of saying thank you. Why read it now, when it’s been waiting so long in my TBR pile? Well, let’s just say I was doing research and leave it at that.
The premise: ganked from the author’s website: If everyone told you love wasn’t real, would you still be willing to die for it?
Sara Mendoza and Sean Cryer are.
In their multi-partner, caste-ruled society, love and jealousy are considered emotional fallacies, nothing more than fleeting moods and sentiments biased by hormones. Relationships and conceptions in this world obsessed with celebrity, beauty, and power are based on DNA and lineages…or should be. But not everyone believes in the ruling traditions of the all-powerful Embassy. A quiet rebellion prowls the dark underground of this shiny world where techno-militants calling themselves fraggers grow in numbers and bravado. The Embassy intends to silence the fragger movement before the heresy of equality spreads throughout the system.
Sara Mendoza is part of the Embassy’s plan. Captured, tortured, and falsely accused of treason, she is given a chance to win back her freedom. She only needs to charm information from one of the fragger leaders, then kill him. But by the time she figures out the Embassy’s intel is flawed and that Sean Cryer is her true mark, she’s already in love with him.
Sean knows why Sara is on his ship from the start, but as a lonely, anti-social doser, he doesn’t value his life, only his ideology within the fragger organization. Against his better judgment, he becomes her protector, each day caring more about a future he was always afraid to hope for.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay. I think it’d be a cruel thing to spoil a book that can be purchased so cheaply for the Kindle, so you’re welcome to read the full review, unless you’re in a hurry, and then you can skip to “My Rating” and be just fine.
Discussion: So a little more background. I rarely, if ever, read self-published books. I’m a bit of a snob in that sense, though with the rising trends in e-publishing, I certainly understand why some authors would choose to forgo the traditional route, especially when it comes to keep most of the proceeds from a sale. In Miller’s case, she’d tried the traditional route: she tried and tried and tried. An editor of a BIG NAME publishing company who’d requested Miller’s full manuscript told her, a year after Miller sent it, the there’s a lot to enjoy in the book. The problem was the author’s unknown status. Apparently, said editor had a BIG NAME SF AUTHOR whose sales were declining, and everyone knew who THAT guy was, and the publishing company was struggling to achieve the usual sales for said author. If they had so much trouble with a known SF quantity, imagine the kind of trouble they’d have promoting a newbie?
It’s an interesting look at the genre, and by genre I’m referring to science fiction specifically, not science fiction/fantasy. On one hand, one would be tempted to tell the said editor (no, I don’t know who it was) that the excuse was bunk: so much depends on the author in question and the book in question and whether or not the author has worn out his welcome with his fans (I’m assuming said author of the story was a he; I don’t know that name either). Also, debut SF is getting published all the time, right? Just look at last year’s A Soldier’s Duty by Jean Johnson. Okay, so the author already some publishing cred in romance, but that doesn’t mean jack in such a different genre.
On the other hand, the editor’s comments rang true with all the grumblings I’ve heard lately. That SF is a hard sell unless you’re a BIG NAME AUTHOR and/or have a long-running series going that keeps fans coming back for more. I’m sure you can easily argue both ways, and I’m sure there are stats to prove both arguments, but I do know that personally, I’m taking fewer risks with SF when it comes to new authors (shame on me), and I know that in the Calico Reaction book club, participation tends to drop when it’s an SF title. If that’s representative at all of the bigger picture, then yes, the editor’s concerns were valid. I still haven’t read Jean Johnson’s SF debut, despite wanting to. Again, shame on me.
I remember hearing about Miller’s SF thesis (aka, this novel) when I was at Seton Hill‘s Writing Popular Fiction program. The premise excited me, because it was right up my alley of interests. I attended her thesis reading (aka, her reading excerpts from her novel), and even had a chance to critique the first few pages of her sequel, Fragger (not yet released). So there’s the background in a nutshell. I was very, very curious to see what this finished product looked like, despite the self-publishing label.
For a self-published novel, it actually looks pretty darn good. The cover I’ll talk about later, but Miller knows the importance of making sure the book looks “real” so everything is formatted correctly and meticulously. The hard copy has a teaser/excerpt page when you open the front flap, then you get the title page, copyright page, dedication page, and acknowledgements in short order. Chapters start on a fresh page, and the pages themselves are formatted with author name and page number on the left-sided pages, with the right-sided pages book’s title and page number. Just like a traditionally published book.
I should note here that the hard copy is no longer available on Amazon.com. I don’t know if the author herself still has hard copies, and if you’re is DYING to get their hands on one, I’m sure you can contact the author for details. I say that because I have no idea how the Kindle version, which IS available on Amazon, looks in terms of format. There’s always the chance if I’d read the Kindle version, I’d be frothing at the mouth over the format, so again, I can’t comment to that.
The book starts out letting the reader dip their toes in the world-building of society. We meet Sara, the heroine, and we learn her hopes and fears, all representative of the society she current lives in. Then the action hits, and when the action hits, the shit hits the fan and Sara’s life changes forever.
I promised no spoilers, and I’ll hold to that: what we’ve got here is a science fiction romance, where two characters discover what it means to love in a society that considers love to be a joke. It’s not been eradicated, such as in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, but people aren’t beholden to it. They control themselves, because it’s so much more important to have many armours (official partners) and a strong and fruitful legacy (kids)
I had a few chuckles while reading, such as on page 105:
His body tingled like he was getting that urge now, either from the stims running through his veins or because he was experiencing an emotional fallacy. Instant attractions often resulted in false feelings for another. That’s why when he felt this way, he usually ran in the other direction.
Of course, when I think about the world-building itself, based on multiple “marriages” (though Miller doesn’t use that term) and where a person’s (not just a woman’s, but a man’s too) worth is literally tied up in their ability to birth or sire children, it’s not very feminist sounding. Not that the book is trying to be, mind you, but it is interesting to look at the world Miller has created from those eyes. As I said before, it’s just important for men to be to father children as it is for women to have them. Sterility in either sex is often solved with a ritual suicide (in fact, that’s what the book opens with), so even if one scoffs at the premise that a woman is worthless unless she can birth children, at least the men suffer the same label.
But the twist to the premise in that regard is that it becomes Sara’s choice: will she choose love over her legacy, or will she hold true to society’s values, dismiss love, and hold on to her legacy? It’s a powerful choice, especially for the character, and I do like how that builds up and plays out.
But there’s more to this book than romance and legacies. It’s a story about a revolt, and it is heavily inspired by gaming. Even the term “fragger” originates from gaming, and Miller is clearly paying homage here. There were moments when I found myself a little lost in the virtual reality/gaming sections of the book, but mostly because the POV character, usually Sean, would have a fragger avatar with its own name, and so not only would I have to remember that Sean and Zak were the same person, but I’d also get inundated by the names of Sean’s clan and it was hard for me to keep up personally.
Also influencing the world building is a dash of politics, space opera, and oddly enough, reality television. I’ll be honest, I could’ve spent more time living in Miller’s world before the action really heated up, because there’s a lot of yummy little nuggets that delighted me while reading. Stuff like sex education, but literal sex education, where you learn how to please partners, literally. That cracked me up. The fact that only Uppers were obsessed with the multi-marriage society, but Lowers were monogamous, a restriction enforced by the Embassy. There were mind minstrels, that used all kinds of things to figure out your mood and desires and even thought, and would in turn create your own personal soundtrack on the spot. That would be so utterly embarrassing if those things existed in our society. And the funeral rites were utterly fascinating. Miller’s background in anthropology really came through there.
I did have some issues. Some of it’s preference and some of it I wonder whether it would’ve been ironed out some had Miller snagged a traditional publisher. For starters, I’m still trying to figure out if this is a “hurt/comfort” (a fanfic term that actually applies well to original fiction as well, see definitions here) story, and if so, is that such a bad thing? That’s where preference comes in, because “hurt/comfort” is an overdone troupe and can often be used to fast-track a romance. While I liked both Sara and Sean individually, I never felt any real spark for their relationship. I never actively rooted against them, mind you, but I was more interested in the tension between Rainer and Sara, and at one point, I wondered why Miller chose the route she did with them, until we learn what the repercussions of those choices are. Don’t worry, this isn’t a love triangle, not in the slightest. Sure, two men are attracted to the heroine, but considering the world-building where multiple armours are encouraged and the norm for High society, it kind of sucks all the power of a triangle, doesn’t it? Especially when the heroine knows what she wants, when she wants it, and doesn’t waffle between men.
Another issue that popped up for me was despite the descriptive detail (and there was plenty of it, so maybe I was just brain-dead while reading), I never got a solid sense of setting. I never felt like I was “there,” never felt grounded in the worlds described, nor the ship, nor anything other than a nondescript room. I wish there’d been a stronger sense of atmosphere, a stronger sense of really living and breathing in that world (I think that wish comes from me just wanting to absorb more of the world-building too). I often found myself a little lost in terms of spacial orientation, who was where and why and how they got back; action was sometimes a little blurry, and then there was time: some chapters indicate when several weeks or months pass, but without those indicators, I wondered how much time had really passed, say, on the ship, because the Sovereign was a REALLY impatient person otherwise, and that frustrated me (as it clearly frustrated the heroine), because again, I wanted time for things to develop, to play out. And sometimes things felt rushed. As the book got closer and closer to the end, the more I felt characters were reacting to things, and all the differing threads started fraying a bit in my mind. Even now, after having finished this book a few weeks ago, I’m still not sure who was pulling the strings and why. I’m not completely sure who betrayed who and why. Some things were clear, and based on those things, I can make a few educated guesses, but it’s not the same kind of satisfaction as seeing the big picture after the final puzzle piece clicks into place. That’s okay, because this is a debut, and that’s something that the author will hopefully improve upon in time (or maybe I’m just dense).
While this wasn’t an issue for me personally, I feel obligated to note: there is a lot of violence in this book. I won’t go so far as to say it’s gratuitous, but some readers may be turned off by the sheer amount of hell the characters go through. In some ways, that violence creates a revenge story, and that drives the plot along nicely in terms of providing motivation. But for some readers, it may be too much. Consider page 101, when Sara is talking to the Sovereign, the man responsible for the absolute hell she went through at the start of the book:
“If you can’t get results, I will be forced to intervene. I’m giving you the opportunity to pay off your life debt, Ambasadora Mendoza. Isn’t that what you want? To please me?”
She’d like to cut off Simon’s testicles and make him choke on them. That would please her.
I personally find this funny, but my sense of humor is demented. But if such a line disturbs you, I’m not sure how you’re going to handle the more graphic descriptions and implications of torture prior to and later on.
Miller also sadly breaks my POV Rule (thou shalt not have more than one POV per 100 pages) with 5 POVs in a 383 page book. Oh well. I really need to patent that little rule and publish it somewhere.
My Rating: No Rating
I don’t do this very often, but when I do, I have lots of reasons. Please note: “No Rating” does not, in any way, imply a negative review. Instead, just imagine that I’m not doing a rating system at all. I go this route when it’s a book I don’t feel qualified reviewing, such as Sebastian Copeland’s photography book Antarctica: A Call to Action. But I also reserve this rating for cases when I know the author and/or am too close to the work. In this case, I clearly know the author. There’s also the chance that one day, I may work with the author in a professional capacity, so I’d be kidding myself if I tried to be unbiased on the rating.
That being said, there’s a lot to enjoy in this book, but this is a book that I would kill to see an editor take his/her time with and polish it into a hard, hard shine. I hope that one day, Ambasadora finds a home with a traditional publisher, because I’d love to see the difference between the self-published version and said traditionally published one (if there’s a difference at all!). I think the book could stand to be a little longer, give the characters a little bit of breathing room so that a little more clarity is achieved as the end unfolds. But the premise is still fascinating, and Miller brings the story to a rather nice circular conclusion (and a good ending), and that’s something I personally appreciate. One of these days, I’d like to download Miller’s prequel Greenshift from Amazon, and I’m quite curious to see how the sequel Fragger plays out. I wish Miller all the best, and if you’re a reader who has a Kindle and is a fan of science fiction romance, this is an easy book to recommend. Sure, it’s self-published, and while there are places that could be tightened and clarified (though let’s be real, I’ve read far, far worse books published in the traditional manner, so let’s just call the weaknesses as we see them and leave it at that), overall, it’s a solid action story with plenty of characters to root for and a fascinating premise. I’d be happy to read this again, should Miller get it published elsewhere.
Cover Commentary: Seeing a thumbnail of the cover on Facebook was how I knew the author was publishing. The smaller it is, the more it looked like she’d sold her book. But even for a self-published book, the cover is quite spiffy. The font’s not overwhelming or ugly (not on the trade; the thumbnail for the Kindle shows the same art, but lighter, with an italicized font, which I don’t like as well), and the art is interesting to look at. I visioned the intra-tat on Sara’s arm to be somewhat brighter and larger, and I can’t help but wonder if the artist used the author as his model for the cover, but it’s an interesting cover, and it definitely caught my eye on Facebook.