TracingTheStars.com was provided with a free review copy.
I want to start by saying that I teetered constantly between 4 and 5 stars for this book, my opinion changing from page to page. I think this will easily be a five star in many, if not most, readers’ opinions. There was just something that kept me from absolutely reaching the five star step. If that step isn’t clearly within my mind, I tend to stay at 4 stars.
There were many aspects about this book that I found to be fantastic, with many moments of ‘whoa’, and ’wow’ and ‘I see what you did there’… Many moments that had me highlighting or rereading just so I could relish the words on the page. But, there were also many moments that had me scratching my head or backtracking for clarification. I think it was the subtle layer of confusion that existed throughout the book that kept it from resonating on all five cylinders with me.
The layer of confusion was in some part due to the writing style, which used odd jumps back in time and p.o.v. shift side-jumps. Most of them were a bit jarring and could have been fixed with either proper transitions or changing the order in which they were inserted. I would have preferred more of a sign in the road that you’re about to take a step backwards or to the side before you can go forwards again. The other parts of the confusion were due to some info dumps scattered throughout which used both to get the reader up to speed on the ‘real world’ and the ‘dream box’ world, as well as the futuristic society and technology. This made the world building a little clunky at times for me. While explanation of these elements is most certainly needed, some of it was heavy-handed, at least for my personal tastes. I’m sure many readers will lap the details up and still be left asking for more.
The story takes place in the 22nd century on a planet in the Frontier called Descarta. Society has become broken into ‘castes’. We only learn of two casts – the blues and the reds. The blues are the well off, administrative types and the red are the lower, manual labor types. They wear actual metal collars colored red and everything is segregated. There are also synthetics / robotics who are taking over red-collar jobs. Humans have become genetically refined, births are synthetic, and God has been ‘disproven’. Most spend their off hours in a virtual reality environment called the ‘dream box’.
If this sounds a little bit familiar, you may have read Ready Player One at some point. Indeed, if not for the more futuristic setting on a planet not of Earth, then I would also argue that there are many uncanny similarities. The dream box requires a virtual helmet, they wear a syth-mesh suit, and most of society only works so they can live their real lives in the dream box. Most even have love lives and jobs in the dream box. Outside the dream box, life is ordered, unpleasant and many people barely function socially. I’m not, however, going to get into a comparison between Descarta and Player One. They are separate despite the similarities, and each stand completely apart from the other on numerous counts.
There are several key characters in Wolf of Descarta, and often the meandering viewpoints added to the earlier mentioned layer of confusion. The key player is Jaren Reece, a red collar who lost his chance at being a blue collar and works at a garbage dump – a society-branded failure with no chance of advancing or changing his caste. In the Dream Box, Jaren is Balmus – and he’s not exactly a hero there, either. He’s a player-killer who’s banded together with other player killers, and in doing so has gained one of the legendary suits of armor, becoming the Wolf Knight, not necessarily by commendable actions. Jaren is the epitome of anti-hero.
Another character of note is a ‘hacker’/genius, Hayes, who accesses the Dream Box from a detention cell. Hayes assists Jaren inside Jaren’s favorite Dream Box RPG. Hayes is let out of detention on occasion to help the government interpret and deal with possible threats it picks up from the brainwaves of the people via the dream box. Think Minority Report, where they try to stop crimes and interpret threats before they happen, except they don’t have three psychics interpreting the future – just one, borderline-sane genius interpreting code.
Brea is another character worth mentioning in this review. She has several interesting aspects that add further layers to the story, including a genetic disorder. Coworker to Jaren, she finds herself falling for him while her body falls apart. The relationship development between Jaren and Brea is an interesting dynamic between two socially inept people, further impeded by Jaren’s infatuation with a girl, Petra, whom he has only met online. Petra, also aides Jaren in the Dream Box, and Jaren fights against his desire for her that exists despite an earlier betrayal.
Still following? So far, we have a dystopic, caste-based society of genetically engineered humans (a few of which are falling apart at the genes) living on a frontier planet, Descarta, who spend their leisure time plugged into a virtual reality Dream Box that lets them play games and lead secondary lives. On top of that, we have Jaren/Balmus and the dynamics of Petra the VR girl vs. Brea the reality girl. Oh, and did I mention Jaren begins to exhibit skills that bleed over from his VR Balmus warrior into his physical body?
It is a lot to take in, and all before reaching 25% on my kindle. Combine that with the p.o.v. changes and the jumps between ‘reality’ and ‘dream box simulation’ scenes, and you get that layer of confusion that kept me from giving five stars. I think this may have been helped by some editing and/or revision work. The rest of the editing (grammar and all that) is perfectly fine.
At around 25% we learn the true nature of the Dream Box, what’s really going on with society and why Jaren is a key player. It wasn’t what I expected and I found it uniquely interesting. I’m not going to say anything further on the plot or events, as I prefer to do spoiler-free reviews. Beyond all the above, the book poses questions about existence, reality and society – and our acceptance, adherence or uprising against these conceptual constructs. The ‘hero’s journey’ is certainly present, with Hayes acting as the Guide to Jaren’s anti-hero character. Jaren agrees to take on the quest, but like all true anti-heroes, he has a self-serving condition.
Despite the confusion, this book was a wonderful read. I recommend it to any fans of dystopia or science fiction, especially if you are like me and really enjoy stories that include virtual reality as part of the word building and plot.