Sunday, October 19, 2008

NETHERWOOD by Michele Lang

Amazonia meets The Avenger in the gladiatorial arena, savoring the shouts of the crowd. She knows that no matter who wins the fight, she and The Avenger will head to his lair after it’s over to heal their wounds. Yes, to literally heal wounds and as a euphemism for having sex. But it isn’t an amoral thing for her- it’s a connection with another living soul. Even though it isn’t real.

Amazonia is the avatar of Sheriff Talia Fortune, and the Netherwood is a virtual reality world where you can be anything, anyone. Think World of Warcraft times the Matrix times the Holodeck. In this future society, the governments are still nominally there, but everything is run by corporations. Space travel to other occupied worlds takes months, even if you use wormholes, and no one can do anything without their handheld computers. More than communication, more than a PDA- you can literally download yourself through your device to enter the Netherwood. It’s slightly illegal- the Netherwood has become the ultimate Sin City. But Talia risks going anyway, both to hone her skills, and because The Avenger is her only real connection.

He gave her a message during their last fight; everyone is going to die, and she can learn how to save herself on a world called Fresh Havens. She has to head there anyway. Her uncle is the mayor of that world, and he’s doing a rotten job. The motherboard that runs the place has just been sabotaged, and it’s her duty to get the place running again. She has other concerns, too: Talia is the heir to FortuneCorp, the monolithic company her grandmother Violet Fortune started. Talia is under pressure to take her place as the head of FortuneCorp in just a few years. When Violet’s body started to die, she downloaded herself onto a chip, or “reduced down.” She can basically go anywhere in the computer universe, as long as she’s loaded onto a program.

When Talia investigates the sabotage, she knows that her Avenger is a man named Kovner, and he is the one who melted the computer system. She must go beyond the carefully cultivated city, into the Gray Forest wilderness, to find him. Once there, she finds wild, hungry predators and a distinct hostility to technology. In the forest, computers don’t work. And the wind calls her name.

Kovner is in the forest with a group of people who have never used technology. He is trying to save a pocket of humanity that will not become part of a frightening computer assault. He tells Talia of the coming Singularity; FortuneCorp and the other big companies are assimilating human life to become part of a single, collective mind. Since corporations long ago censored historical documents, as well as used a horrific war started by religious zealots to outlaw religion, the majority of people have no concept of their own souls. When approached about reducing down and entering the hive mind, many will give in. Talia, good corporate officer that she is, can’t believe that it could happen. Accepting what Kovner tells her means gutting her career and betraying her grandmother. But doing her duty means destroying her Avenger.

Michele Lang is a great world-builder; I can see everything she’s prophesied happening. Fantastic though it is, it’s entirely believable. It takes a long time and a big struggle for Talia to overcome her training and her fear to accept what’s going on around her. Reading her journey was a joy; she finds some strengths she didn’t know she had and is brought down a peg or two on things she was arrogant about.

Michele skillfully illustrates the fears of the computer age- we know there is almost no such thing as privacy anymore, and we have legitimate worries that corporations are really running things. Are we in danger of selling our souls for convenience, money, power and pleasure? Within all the deeper meanings, though, is just a good adventure yarn about a small band of rebels fighting the Evil Empire, something I’m always happy to read. There is action but not gore. The heat level is very hot but those passages were a little disconnected; of course that may be my bias against first-person love scenes. Reading “He grabbed my this, that, and the other” and “I shrieked as I became one with the cosmos” always makes me feel like I’m trapped in the booth at Denny’s with the other girls from the office who are totally oversharing, ya know?

I enjoyed the story, and I’m looking forward to more. Thanks, Michele!


Kimber An said...

Awesome crit, Robyn!

Robyn said, "Reading “He grabbed my this, that, and the other” and “I shrieked as I became one with the cosmos” always makes me feel like I’m trapped in the booth at Denny’s with the other girls from the office who are totally oversharing, ya know?"

Yeah, I know! (chuckle) Sounds like a great adventure anyway. I love great world-building.

Heather said...

Great review! This book sounds like it's crackling with energy.

Michele Lang said...

Dear Robyn,

Thanks so much for the wonderful review! I just came across it, and I'm glad you enjoyed NETHERWOOD. I am releasing a free short story set in the NETHERWOOD universe next month, during paranormal week at my agent's blog.

My agent is Lucienne Diver, and her blog is at She's having an urban fantasy theme week this week, with giveaways etc...

Thanks again -- you made my day :)

Michele Lang

Robyn said...

Thanks for stopping by, Michele!