Michele Lang
2008, Futuristic Romance
Shomi, $6.99, 303 pages, Amazon ASIN 0505527596

Grade: B+
Sensuality: Hot

Writing a good action story poses enough difficulty for a writer, but add in complex world-building and a story tackling deep questions such as the nature of souls and what it means to have the capacity to love and the result is Netherwood. Featuring strong and intelligent characters on the faraway planet of Fresh Havens doing battle for the human race, the book is an original and thought-provoking tale.

Just a few centuries into the future, countries as we know them on Earth have ceased to exist. The world - and beyond - has been taken over by large corporate conglomerates and people are merely "citizens” of particular corporations. Not limited to Earth, these companies have colonized other planets as well. Talia Fortune, newly appointed sheriff of the colony on Fresh Havens, is no ordinary citizen since she is the granddaughter of the company’s legendary founder.

When Talia arrives, she finds all manner of unpleasant surprises since the colony is obviously hovering on the brink of something terrible. She starts with her mission: To locate Kovner, a rogue who has gone off-grid, a serious sin in this world. All people live their lives on the computer grid of reality and venturing off marks Kovner as a dangerous outlaw - not to mention one capable of feats many would have thought impossible.

Kovner is believed to be somewhere in the Netherwood, the Wild West of the grid-controlled world, where people create avatars and engage in all manner of normally unthinkable things such as fighting competitions and illicit affairs. One can make an avatar be anything its controller wants it to be, giving the Netherwood a hint of dangerous appeal within the computerized world. While she has never vanished so completely as Kovner, Talia has flirted with the illicit side of life in the Netherwood and it is this minor rebellion that gives her the skills she needs to start tracking the outlaw.

As Talia tracks down Kovner, he opens her mind to new ideas and horrors she had not imagined. If Kovner speaks truly, all of humanity faces a crisis she finds difficult to believe in and Talia doesn’t know how to combat. She doesn’t know if she can trust Kovner and his theories, but there is something about him that awakens parts of herself that she cannot entirely discount.

In case you're wondering, this plot synopsis is deliberately a little vague since this book features complex ideas set within a very detailed world, and the manner in which they are revealed is more meaningful if the reader sees everything with fresh eyes. For that reason, many twists and turns of the story are being kept a surprise.

While the placement of some love scenes within the story did seem a little odd, the chemistry between Talia and Kovner feels convincing both in the real world and in the illicit realm of Netherwood. The two leads are strong, intelligent and likable characters and the action-packed story kept me turning the pages. Still, the world-building (which feels somewhat inspired by The Matrix without being an outright rip-off) and the human vs. computer struggle woven through the story give Netherwood a unique and deeply-felt quality which will make it a sure reread for me.

-- Lynn Spencer

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