Fiction Reviews

The Sentient

(2020) Nadia Afifi, Flame Tree Press, £9.99 / US$14.99, pbk, 304pp, ISBN 978-1-787-58433-4


This is the author’s first novel – a fast-paced, near-future science fiction story by promising newcomer Nadia Afifi, whose short stories have previously appeared in prominent magazines such as Fantasy and Science Fiction, Abyss and Apex.

The protagonist – Amira – has escaped from a restrictive religious cult and become a promising neurosciences student with dreams of working on a research space station. She is surprised however when she is assigned to an unpopular and controversial cloning project.

There are secrets and connections to be uncovered, not least the fact that the two of the pregnant women in the cloning experiment have died - leaving one surviving patient, who has also escaped from a religious cult.

Amira’s skill is to interpret memories using holomentic technology and she soon begins to uncover a conspiracy to reveal and a mystery to unravel – this puts her in danger and takes her to a world populated by anti-cloning militants and scientists with hidden agendas.

As a protagonist, Amira is lively, believable and engaging. Her past experiences, in the clutches of the cult, give her character depth and interest. Her learning curve gives the story energy and her affinity with Rozene – the expectant mother of the first human clone – is handled with realism and care.

However, the other characters in the story are disappointingly flat and it is often difficult to distinguish between them all, particularly the male characters. The only exception is Hadrian, an investigator who helps Amira. His character has more depth – I pictured him as the mockney character from Amazon Prime’s The Boys, though I find it hard to believe that someone says ‘love’ and ‘missy’ that much.

This is a compelling read, but what lets the story down is the abundance of detail, particularly in the action/chase scenes, which start off well, but then the thrills and spills are just too precisely documented to maintain interest. The novel is flagged up as story about cloning, but the predominant themes are about confronting the past and reaching out to help others. At the denouement of the story, I felt that, while Amira’s journey had been pacey, promising and productive, the premise of human cloning had not really been confronted or explored. Nonetheless, on balance a promising debut.

Mark Bilsborough

See also Peter's take on The Sentient.


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