Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review - Invisible Republic: Volume 01 by Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman

Short review: A reporter looking for a story comes across a mystery in the aftermath of the collapse of a planetary government. Mysterious intrigue ensures.

A reporter finds
The lost diary of the
Dictator's cousin

Full review: The first volume of a projected five volume series, Invisible Republic: Volume 01 is a story of intrigue and mystery set in the aftermath of the collapse of the Malory Regime on the distant moon of Avalon that kicks off when a down on his luck reporter, novelist, and former actor named Croger Babb almost literally stumbles across a diary that appears to be that of Maia Reveron, cousin to Arthur McBride, the former leader of the now defunct regime. The only trouble is that Maia doesn't exist in the official records of the regime, so naturally Babb sets out to try to find out why, hoping that the answer will turn into a splashy story that will serve as big break to turn his fortunes around.

The story of this volume is told in two intertwined threads, one in the "present" set in the misery and privation that arose after the fall of the Malory Regime, and the other decades in that past, before the Malory Regime was even an idea. The narrative shifts back and forth, first following Babb as he follows the trail of the enigmatic Reveron using the clues found in her diary, and then reaching back across the years to see some of the key events of Reveron's life as described in the diary, laid out frame by frame. In an interesting stylistic choice, the scenes in the "present" are primarily colored with grays, while the scenes in the past are generally in reddish tones. This gives a clear signal to the reader what time period they are seeing at any given point in time, but given that all of the colors of the book are washed out, making both past and present seem bleak and depressing, I'm not sure if there is any further symbolism represented by this choice.

Unfortunately, this ambiguity is the primary problem with the book, as it almost resolutely refuses to provide any information at all to the reader. This issues may clear up as the planned four following volumes are published, but taken on its own, this volume is more of a prologue to a story than an actual story in itself. Though the individual scenes contained in the book are often compelling - McBride and Reveron's desperate fight against three soldiers attempting to impress them into service, Reveron stumbling into a couple of friendly beekeepers and becoming their apprentice, or McBride's return to the stage as a radical terrorist - the individual pieces not only don't add up to more than the sum of the parts, they somehow manage to add up to less. Even the cliffhanger ending, which is obviously intended to be a dramatic revelation, feels somewhat anticlimactic.

The book isn't entirely without value: Despite being a collection of fairly stock tropes, Crogan Babb is a moderately interesting character. Maia Reveron's story is enjoyable, as we watch her go from being an escaped indentured servant, to a criminal on the run, to an aspiring apiarist, to a confused bystander watching her cousin take his place at the head of a revolutionary movement. The mystery of how McBride went from being a disaffected criminal on the run to the leader of an insurrection is intriguing. The background of how the moon of Avalon, once called Maidstone, and its neighboring planet Asan and sister moon Kent were settled by generation ships and the resulting conflict between the three seem like they might be interesting. This is all undermined by the fact that the book provides so little information about these stories that there is almost nothing for the reader to hold on to.

When crafting a story built around a political mystery, the difficulty always lies in how much information to give the reader and how soon to give it. Give too much too quickly, and the element of mystery evaporates. Give too little too late and the reader has no way to understand the world. Invisible Republic steadfastly refuses to give the reader any information. Sure, the book opens up by revealing the big secret that Maia Reveron exists, but with almost no other information about the world provided, there isn't really much of a reason to care. The reader is told that the Malory Regime recently fell, and this has caused widespread economic privation, but the book says nothing about what kind of regime it was, or what kind of regime it replaced, how the Malory Regime came to power, or how or why it fell. On a more character-driven level, the book doesn't let the reader in on anything regarding the apparently failed movie that made Babb infamous. After reading the entire book, I still have no idea what "Invisible Republic" refers to, or why I should care. In short, the reader really should be warned that they should not expect to know anything more at the end of the book about the politics that form the underlying basis for this story than they did at the beginning of the book.

Invisible Republic: Volume 01 is a book that is full of promises and mysteries, but which completely fails to deliver on any of those promises or give answers to any of those mysteries. In the end, this lack of answers makes the entire book dissolve into a series of disjointed and unsatisfying vignettes. It is one thing to hold back some core plot or background elements to preserve an aura of mystery around a story, but holding back virtually everything hollows out the setting to such a degree that there is nothing left for the reader to do but grasp at shadows. Sadly, grasping at shadows turns out to be a fairly unsatisfying way to spend an entire book. The story still has the potential to pick up in future volumes of the series, but on its own, this volume simply delivers too little to be a worthwhile read.

2016 Hugo Award Nominees

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  1. I think I'll keep my distance from this one.

    1. @fredamans: I am holding out hope that the next volume will be better, but if the story doesn't improve soon I'll probably abandon the series.