The Demi-Monde: Winter, by Rod Rees. William Morrow, 2010. 517 pp. 978-0-06-207034-0.
... in which a young woman is enlisted to save the US President's daughter, who is trapped in a virtual world populated by Nazis, terrorists, and various villains from world history.
The Demi-Monde: Winter is the first book in a series involving a virtual reality (the Demi-Monde), set in 2018. This virtual world was created to simulate urban warfare scenarios for US soldiers in training, and the programmers populated the world with "dupes", virtual duplicates of real-life people, famous and otherwise. The computer world's technology is set to be comparable to the technology available in Victorian times. The most prominent people populating the Demi-Monde are some the worst people to ever live, including Reinhard Heydrich (one of Hitler's right-hand men), Lavrentii Beria (Stalin's chief of police), Tomas de Torquemada (a prominent figure in the Catholic Church's Spanish Inquisition), and plenty of others. The catch? The people in the Demi-Monde don't know that they're not real; all they know is that living in the Demi-Monde is hell. Unfortunately for the real-life humans who are spending time in this computer simulation, if you die in the computer, then you die in real life. Somehow, the US President's daughter Norma has been lured into the Demi-Monde, and is being held captive by Heydrich and his lackeys. The US Army recruits a young woman, Ella Thomas, to infiltrate the Demi-Monde and bring Norma out safely. However, the rulers of the Demi-Monde have a bigger plan for Norma and all of the residents of the computer world.
First let me say, if you think this sounds like The Matrix with Nazis, then you're wrong. I found this to be one of the most original, intriguing virtual reality books that I've read. The world building in this novel is fantastic. The fake world in the computer simulation is so vividly described, but also maintains enough different-ness to remind the reader that this world is not quite real. Each geographic community was clearly very thoroughly planned out by the author, and as the characters move around the Demi-Monde, the locations and settings are easy to imagine based on the author's descriptions. The cultures of the Demi-Monde were equally vivid, almost to the point of making the book difficult to read. Since the whole point of the Demi-Monde was that it be ruled by the most awful people ever, most of the cultures in it are racist, sexist, religiously intolerant, and generally very unpleasant. The whole book was a very interesting, complicated look at political ideology, religious fundamentalism, superstition, and hero-worship. It could easily have been another 150 pages long.
The main character, Ella, is really well done. She's very obviously a modern American young woman... an independent free-thinker who's brash enough to get herself into a lot of sticky situations. Many of the supporting characters are interesting as well: the people pulling the strings in the real world, Ella's allies in the Demi-Monde, enemies in the Demi-Monde. While plenty of the bad guys are evil caricatures of pretty much any scheming evil baddie, several of them are complex characters whose evil characteristics are complicated and very, very chilling (especially considering that these characters are based on real people!). Unfortunately, there are a lot of prominent characters that are not very interesting. Trixie, the daughter of a prominent Demi-Mondian, is one of the most important characters but I generally found her to be flat, hateful, and boring. She's a good representation of how uncompromising idealism can go horribly awry, but I didn't find her to be very realistic. Norma, the president's daughter, started out as likable but ended up being kind of boring and irritating; I am assuming that will change since the second book in the series is mostly about Norma.
The book had a number of other faults. In some places, the plot moved too quickly for me, and I was sort of confused about why things were happening. This problem is compounded by the weird vocabulary used by the Demi-Mondians; some of this weird vocabulary is defined in a glossary at the back, but many of the words are left for the reader to figure out. Sometimes the lack of supporting details wasn't a big deal, but sometimes it left me puzzling over something for the entire book. For example, I never really understood why Ella had to be the one to go into the Demi-Monde to find Norma; I only figured that out at the very end of the book. Also, there were a lot of plot conveniences and one really huge deus ex machina moment, but I guess since the book is mostly set in a computer world, anything goes.
Despite the book's many faults, I raced through it, dying to know what happened next. When the book ended on a cliffhanger (grr), I went looking for information about the sequel. I was told that the next book wouldn't be available in the US until next winter, which made me seek out a UK copy of the sequel. So, regardless of the book's faults, I enjoyed it immensely. I am a little bit skeptical about the ending, as it suggested that the next book might be moving in a direction that I won't like, but we will see!