Fiction Reviews

The Sentient

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


The author has several published shorts but this is her first novel, and it is not a bad one at that. Set a couple of hundred years in the future, it does a good job of filling the pages with an interesting story.

The world is roughly the same politically, though the United States (and Canada?) are now the North American Alliance. Much of the story is set in the city of Westport, on the Oregon coast. There have been some environmental changes and the day-to-day weather is very variable, from sun to snow, throughout the year, and the Drought Wars are casually mentioned (though never expounded upon).

A very special part of Westport is the Aldwych district, home to the Academy, important institutions and companies, and the Lower Earth Orbit industry. Whilst the Aldwych district does not have its own laws, it certainly has its own rules and there is a powerful hierarchy than runs through the tightly woven together academia and industrial complex.

Amira Valdez was born in southern Utah, in the Children of the New Covenant Compound. It is one of the three main groups of religious fundamentalists, all living in the deserts of the Midwest. Life was harsh with physical punishment and public humiliation a constant reminder to total obedience. The group is run by the Elders, lead by Elder Young, who mercilessly drive the men of the compound, who in turn totally dominate their women, and the children have little option than submission (or else get their ‘misguided’ ways beaten out of them). With her sixteenth birthday the next day, and therefore likely soon to be married to whoever chooses her (possibly even the terrible Elder Young), Amira ran away and managed, just, to make her escape to the outside world.

It is now ten years later and Amira has graduated from the Academy in Aldwych; today is Placement Day. She studied neuroscience and has become a very talented therapist and holomentic reader; she hopes to be assigned to one of the orbiting science research stations. Her wish is extremely ambitious and unsuccessful; instead she is assigned to the Pandora initiative, itself a very important project. The aim is to produce a living clone of a human and, to achieve this, three women have been implanted with cloned embryos of themselves, thus reducing the chances of complications. Like Amira, all three volunteers have escaped from religious compounds. So far two of them have suddenly died, just before their third trimester. Rozene, the third volunteer, is now approaching the same point and is clearly likely to suffer the same fate. Amira is convinced the problem is psychological, not physical, and Dr. Valerie Singh, head of the project, agrees; indeed, this is why Amira was assigned to the team. Using a holomentic device over a number of days, Amira investigates Rozene’s mind and memories and discovers the source of the problem - her memory has been tampered with. With luck, all will return to normal and Rozene will give birth to a normal baby.

But, of course, it will not be that easy. There are powerful forces at play, the Elders and their compounds of followers, the Cosmics (a religious group based in the cities and opposed to cloning), and powerful players within the high-ups of Aldwych. What is the drug Tiresia - secret, hidden, and unknown to almost everyone? What does it do that makes it so special to so many shadowy figures? And there, of course, we have the thrust of the story.

The narrative takes a while to build up; some of this is due to explaining both the scenario and Amira’s place in it, and quite a lot to simply following Amira in her day-to-day life. As she settles into her job and learns more of her patient, her curiosity is aroused. Then she learns of more things that do not seem quite right. One thing leads to another and the pace quickens, indeed it becomes something of a thriller and I found myself not wanting to put the book down. As the story proceeds and we come across more high ranking characters, we find many of them have secrets and act in ways that more than suggest hidden agendas. We have double crosses, triple crosses, and more. Indeed, there were surprises right up until the end.

Woven into the story are discussions touching on religion and spiritual views of life, with Nearhaven (rather like heaven) and Neverhaven (rather like hell), as well as different states of existence such as the Conscious plane. Some of the ‘baddies’ prove to be perhaps less ‘bad’, more that they are utterly dedicated to their point of view, which gives rise to some discussion on ‘right ‘ and ‘wrong’. It seems that life can be rather complicated and viewpoints can contradict each other.

There are several fight scenes and here was my only concern in that I found them a touch hard to follow; I was not sure if my imagination was seeing the same local and domestic geography as the writer’s. It is always a problem describing such scenes because they are of necessity about the action rather than being detailed descriptions of rooms, but were they upstairs or downstairs? Were they inside or outside the back room? Fleshing out the lie of the land whilst not loosing the pace is difficult but I have read it done better elsewhere. This is, though, just a minor inconvenience; best go with the flow.

All told, I enjoyed the book and look forward to more from the author. It comes to a satisfactory end, one which brings an end at least to this particular story, but not all the loose ends get wrapped up and there is scope for a follow-up as there are still ‘baddies’ out there. Whether this will remain a one-off or lead to a series is something for the future, but the author has left the door open.

Peter Tyers

See also Mark's take on The Sentient.


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