by Emma Newman
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I received a free e-book of this title from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. Atlas Alone will be published in about six weeks, April 16, 2019, and is available for pre-order. It is the fourth of Emma Newman's novels to be set within the same fictional universe. I've reviewed all of them, beginning with Planetfall, then After Atlas, and Before Mars. They could be read separately without confusion, even in a different order, so I gave each their own page rather than combining them as I have for other series. This one gets its own page too, however I strongly suggest you wait on it unless you've already read at least the second book, since this does closely follow it. I refrained from revealing the climactic event that closed out After Atlas, which overlapped the ending of Before Mars, other than saying it was tragic. The first chapter of this book reveals that information, and unfortunately, so does a blurb at Amazon. I know there are some who don't care about spoilers, but I'm not one of them. I don't think it is something you should know without experiencing it in sequential order. I'm still not going to spoil it, so this will be brief.
Instead, I'll talk about the strengths and twists of Newman's narrative style. Each of the books are at heart mysteries, viewed from the perspective of different first-person narrators. All are intelligent and resourceful, but also insecure and paranoid, due to previous trauma. The portrayals are so emotionally detailed, we're privy to all their anxieties, but also their inner strengths. Since they are telling their own stories, they are presented in a sympathetic manner, but we also see their darker side, and it is always possible one or more of them are unreliable narrators. That's even more of a suspicion when combined with technologies featured in all but the first book. Neural chips give individuals an APA (Artificial Personal Assistant), along with a MyPhys app to monitor health conditions. Many use the chip for entertainment purposes, music and films, reading and research, and also for playing sophisticated virtual reality games, known as mersives. Some people play so many games they have difficulty separating reality from their mersive activities. Thus there are multiple times the reader can also question what is really happening, what is a virtual experience, or what might be a faulty, or altered, memory. Over and above the mind games and mersives, the core mystery of each story is complex and intricate, maintaining the suspense throughout.
The main character here is Dee, short for Deanna. She was a friend of the second book's narrator, Carlos Moreno, an investigator for the Norope (Northern Europe) Ministry of Justice. I only had a vague memory of Dee, knowing she was Carlos' frequent gaming partner. I kept thinking I should have re-read that book, but that will have to wait for an overall re-read when this series is done. I'm pretty sure this will not be the last. Better not be. Carlos had a family connection to the space expedition covered in the first book, as well as a connection to a group that missed the cut for that mission, but used the following years to prepare for another one. Now Dee and Carlos are on Atlas 2, bound for the planet settled by the first expedition, or at least they assume that is its destination. It's about six months into the voyage. Dee is depressed and has fallen out of the habit of indulging in mersive games. That is, until a crew member offers her a job analyzing game statistics, which gives her access to crew member profiles. She and Carlos had been segregated from most of the other passengers, which had frustrated them because they suspected some of the crew were among those who had perpetrated the crime on Earth just before Atlas 2 blasted off from the base on the Moon's farside. Now she has the opportunity to investigate. Only someone else seems capable of manipulating her mersive space for their own agenda. Or is Dee imagining that, getting lost in her own memories?
Dee is enticed into playing a game that frightens her since it recreates settings and memories from her childhood, none of which anyone on the ship should know about. She doesn't even have recorded memories of that time for her own use, since she had not received her neural chip until she was much older. I suspected three different possibilities: somehow Dee was imagining a lot of it, or manipulating her own mersive while in a fugue state without realizing it; the person who offered her the job was also the one taunting her, somehow having acquired knowledge of Dee's early life; my third guess was finally revealed to be the perpetrator, but too early, so that made me suspect misdirection. In some ways, I liked this just as much as the other three books, mainly because I like Dee, even as emotionally broken as she is. Then again, I was frustrated with the over reliance on mersives, which were always subject to misinterpretation, by both Dee and myself. Plus, the last few chapters are rushed and the conclusion is very abrupt. I still recommend this, but not as a stand-alone, you need to read After Atlas first, then the other two if you want a full grasp of the story. I rate this a strong 4 stars, with a few aspects that would raise that a bit. I know I'll want to re-read all of them one day, and I look forward to a fifth book, which may or may not conclude the series.
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