The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Whether or not you can enjoy this book will depend upon your tolerance of characters that are for the most part amoral, backstabbing, brutal, ruthless murderers. This includes the protagonist, although she has a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card in that she was specifically designed (genetically engineered) to be that way. These people are not nice or likable, not in the least...but they are damned compelling, with well-thought-out and believable motivations, given their circumstances. The author says this plot was partially inspired by the miniseries I, Claudius, but I'm also wondering if the infamous Borgia family also didn't figure into her worldbuilding. The grasping for power, the manipulations, and the murders sound like they came straight from the playbook of Cesare and Lucrezia.
In this future, we have a space-faring civilization dominated by a religious faction that rejects science and technology. If this sounds more than a little contradictory, be aware that a rather severe suspension of disbelief is required to get through the first half of the book. As a matter of fact, for this civilization to continue to exist at all, there's got to be artificial intelligence running in the background, keeping it working, to the extent that it is. This is hinted at in "machines repairing other machines," which is the explanation given for the starships with FTL travel, various kinds of robots, and some pretty advanced genetic engineering that is still a thing in this world, even if none of the humans seem to know diddleysquat about it and it's starting to decay. Which would bring into play questioning the personhood of said AI, the same way the protagonist questions her own personhood. But I can understand why the author never explores any of this, because her plot is pretty stuffed already.
Nemesis is our titular Diabolic, a genetically engineered superbeing/bodyguard chemically bonded against her will to protect one person: Sidonia von Impyrean, the daughter of a member of the Imperial Senate. Sidonia's father is a rebel, fighting against the Emperor's ban on science and technology, and as punishment he is ordered to send his daughter as a hostage to the heart of the Empire, the Chrysanthemum. But the Impyrean Matriarch comes up with another plan...since no one knows what Sidonia actually looks like, her Diabolic will go in her place.
From that beginning is spun out a fascinating tale of deception, spying, manipulation, court intrigue, murder, and an artificial being awakening to the fact that she is not so different from her so-called "masters" after all. A watershed event about halfway through the book spins the plot into high gear, and Nemesis partners with the supposed "mad nephew" of the Emperor, Tyrus Domitrian, to bring the Emperor down and restore science and technology. Naturally, Tyrus and Nemesis fall in love, and while the romance is front and center for the most part through the rest of the book, it's an important part of Nemesis' character development. For his part, Tyrus, while no more nice or likable than anyone else in this book (with the exception of the unfortunately too-pure-to-live Sidonia), develops into a very sympathetic character. He plots to kill his uncle, and ends up sending his grandmother to her death in the heart of a star. But the book makes clear that this sort of familial assassination is all Tyrus has ever known--his parents and siblings fell prey to his grandmother's ruthless hand--and he is determined to save the Empire and its people.
The back half of this book, needless to say, is a helluva ride, with plot twist upon plot twist. Despite her being capable of and awakening to love, Nemesis is still a Diabolic through and through, as she informs Tyrus at the end of the book. (There's a reason they are both likened to scorpions, in the fable of the scorpion and the frog.) This is not your standard young adult sci-fi tale. If you can handle the blood and the body count, it's a pretty fascinating world.
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