Thursday, July 14, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Viral Airwaves / Claudie Arseneault

TITLE: Viral Airwaves
AUTHOR: Claudie Arseneault
PUBLISHER: Incandescent Phoenix Books

Science Fiction--Dystopia/Solarpunk

Years ago, a deadly plague devastated the world and claimed Henry Schmitt's mother. A new power rose from the aftermath, uniting multiple nations under one totalitarian banner. Though Henry just wants to lay low and eat his instant noodles (and boy, does he love those damn noodles!), his life is upended one evening when a mysterious man comes to his home--pursued by a soldier hellbent on capturing him. 

The soldier, it turns out, is Hans Vermen, an army captain known for rounding up members of a ragtag rebel group hiding in the mountains. And his quarry is the rebel leader, Seraphin, also known as the White Renegade. Henry hopes to resume his humdrum existence even after the confrontation between the two, but soon finds himself pulled into a revolutionary movement he has no stomach for. After learning an earth-shattering secret left behind by his late father--one that could shake the nation to the core--Henry realizes he has no choice but to step up for the first time in his life. And so armed with a hot air balloon, radio waves, and a determined sense of what's right, Henry sets off to unleash a truth that could change the world.

Man, I really enjoyed this book! I've always been a big fan of rebel stories--from Star Wars to V for Vendetta to the Lunar Chronicles, etc.--and I'm happy to add Claudie Arseneault's VIRAL AIRWAVES to my collection of "dogged underdog" stories. First off, Henry is a delightful protagonist. He's not just a reluctant hero--he's an incompetent one who has to figure out what this whole rebel business even means. He can't shoot, can't strategize, can't even work up the courage to leave home at first... He's as unlikely as they come. And seeing a character start from such a place and then grow into the hero of the story is incredibly satisfying. Also, he's very sympathetic, believable, and relatable. Because let's face it: If this world turned into a dystopia, most of us would probably be Henrys.

The book also features a fantastic cast of supporting characters. Actually, I'm not sure if "supporting" is the right word, since one of them feels more like a co-protagonist. Hans Vermen is cast as a villain of sorts initially--an establishment crony responsible for the deaths of many of the good guys' friends. Yet his backstory is plenty sympathetic--he became such a single-minded hunter of rebels after their leader killed his brother, and everything he does ultimately comes from a place of love and grief. You soon get the feeling that the Union was using that love and grief to fashion him into a weapon, practically to the point of brainwashing. When a rebel named Andreal shows kindness and generosity in spite of his past, Hans begins questioning his worldview, and we're set up for a fantastic redemption arc. And boy, do I love me some redemption arcs! I really loved watching his character develop over the course of the book as he's forced to confront himself and decide what kind of person he wants to be. And I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that he also wrestles with his sexuality, adding a compelling facet to his character and some much-needed gay rep to the world of sci-fi.

VIRAL AIRWAVES also features really interesting world-building, depicting an alternate world (possibly Earth, possibly not) in which petroleum is all but gone, and so most technology is distinctly old-fashioned. Airships, balloons, radios, and pistols. The rebels dwell in a low-tech mountain hideout consisting mostly of caves and tunnels. Yet there are hints that the world used to house more advanced technology, which gives the book a "regressive future" type of feel. A little post-apocalyptic, and yet almost idyllic in some ways. The world wasn't destroyed; humanity just scaled back.

Though Henry is ostensibly the main character, this book is about more than one young man's journey. It's the story about characters within a larger world, with multiple plotlines that diverge, then intersect, then diverge, then intersect, weaving in and out of each other to form a riveting narrative about revolution, friendship, and finding out not just who you are, but who you could be. It's got thrilling twists, exciting action, touching character relationships, and some quirky humor (especially in the bits starring Henry "Noodle Man" Schmitt). I stayed up way too late two nights in a row reading this book and was rather sad when it was over, because it's just that good.

Stories have always been an important part of my life. From reading to roleplaying to writing, I can’t think of a moment characters haven’t lived in my head and I’m proud to be able to share them at last. I'm a proud asexual writer from Quebec City, lover of squids and hot air balloon, and I aim to provide awesome LGBTQIAP+ science fiction and fantasy!

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