4 very solid Stars
The first page pulls the reader head first into a dramatic, gritty fight scene the sets the tone for the rest of the book, and by page ten it became abundantly clear that this was not going to be a book for the faint of heart or those expecting a sweet romance. That, on my score card, is not a bad thing, but I think this book will require the right audience.
There is no hand-holding in this book as far as the world-building goes. The down side to this is that some readers may feel lost, confused or overwhelmed by the details, scene jumps and information dumps. There are some heavy-handed technical information dumps as the construct of the Wits (genetically advanced humanoids with bio-engineered computer augmentations that are used as fighters, slaves, maids, workers and more) is explained within the breadth of a few opening pages. The upside is that these information dumps are written rather well and, if you hold on and take them in, they will immerse you fully into the world that Violante has created. The style of world immersion reminded me of Huxley, where technical detail is painted with visual queues to allow for understanding and consumption in a most enjoyable fashion.
As stated earlier, this is not a simple, sweet romance. The world that Leah exists in is not pretty, and she truly does just simply exist as a Wit, owned and ordered by Jacob, until she begins the journey of her awakening. She is used by Jacob as a sexual object, a house maid, and a companion when he decides to take her out of the house, although the companionship is akin to her being nothing more than an umbrella at times. Jacob is also rather complex, and you get subtle hints at the dichotomy of his character in the last half of the first chapter. It was a jarring scene change and character reversal that the reader is not prepped for, and I was a bit confused by it at first. As you explore the story, however, that strange interlude becomes more clear. This is a point of foreshadowing that could possibly use some editing or rearrangement to make it more clear for the reader. I could see some readers dropping the book with a "hu?" at that point. The rising complexity of Jacob's character as the story continues, however, is matched with a romantic element that is just as complicated. I found that both of these points added depth and substance to the story.
One point that took me a few backtracks to understand is that Leah's brain-implant, referred to as an OPU (its an organic processing unit, like a computer chip), has a feature that causes Leah to black out and revert back to some sort of factory default for a while if she gets over-emotional or something affects her. She wakes up later without memory of the events that took place, and that is one of the reasons some of the scene changes and sequences feel a bit sudden.
Enter the male protagonist, De Leon, an augmented Wit who fights against other Wits to the destruction (or death). The opening scene of the book and second chapter features a fight with De Leon, where he brutally decimates his opponents, much like a gladiator in a Roman amphitheater. As the story progresses, we learn that there is much more to De Leon than his fighting capabilities. Not giving away how or why it happens, De Leon is the one who helps Leah to awaken her true Wit abilities.
Because this is a novella, the love does appear to happen quickly, but in retrospect of the time the novella covers, I wouldn't classify it as an insta-love. I do, however, wonder about Leah's understanding of love, going from being a mindless Wit to being an Awakened Wit in a few weeks and having a grasp of the very complex nature of love. Perhaps this will be explored further in the second book. The last chapter, though I found it a bit awkward, does give the expected happily-for-now ending and a lead in to book two. I can easily see myself continuing with the series to learn more about the Wits, the twist that is mentioned in the final chapter and to follow along with the continuation of De Leon, Leah and hopefully Jacob.
Small note on editing (no effect on review) There were some issues with dialogue and scene changes that could use a bit of editing. Some of the scene changes were jarring, and some of the dialogue was mingled, meaning that paragraphs sometimes contained more than one speaker, though in many cases it appeared that a hard return was missed. These did not affect the reading for me, thought it did take me out of the immersion and I can see that some readers may have a larger issue with it.
In a final note, I will state that the science-fiction aspects of Violante's novella are unique and refreshing, she does a good job of setting up the desire to read the second book without creating a huge cliffhanger, and her characters are enjoyably dynamic.