Author: S.J. Kincaid
Release Date: Nov. 2016

Props to Read.Sleep.Read for hosting ARC August, which gave me the nudge I needed to start interspersing my library and book club reading with all the ARCs I picked up at ALA. Realistically, I hope to get through four ARCs this month, though in my dreams I wish I were still in the stage of life where I had a summer vacation and could easily read a book a day. Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the ARC in exchange for an honest review!

Nemesis is a Diabolic – a humanoid creature bred and bought to serve as a ruthless protector of a single individual. The instincts of a predator are seared into her veins. Every action is coldly calculated to ensure that young Sidonia Impyrean – the center of Nemesis’s world, the only person she is capable of loving – is kept safe and secure. Everyone else, even Sidonia’s mother and father, is just a potential threat, and Nemesis has the merciless brutality to eliminate them if necessary.

But when the Emperor summons Sidonia to his cruel court as a glorified hostage in response to her father’s heresy, Nemesis cannot counter this threat with punches or a knife to the throat. Instead, she has to put on a mask of finery and poise as she becomes Sidonia Impyrean and takes her place in the galactic court. Her inhuman muscle mass is scraped down to size and her unnerving tendencies are trained away, at least as far as an anaconda can be disguised as a lap dog.

Aboard the Chrysanthemum, the collection of spaceships that serves as the galaxy’s center of power, Nemesis discovers garish opulence and veiled viciousness that would’ve destroyed gentle Sidonia. Her job is to lay low and convince the Emperor that the Impyrean family has come back into line with the Helionic faith and its anti-science principles, the same principles that deem Diabolics and every other engineered humanoid as soulless property.

Naturally, things do not go as planned. Nemesis’s arrival at court is part of a larger plan by the Emperor to permanently silence his opposition and secure his iron rule. The power players are old and young, but all are cunning and cruel and capable of turning on each other in a heartbeat. From the Emperor’s manipulative mother and madman nephew to the sons and daughter of the scheming elite, no one can be trusted. But the Chrysanthemum cannot be survived alone, and if Nemesis doesn’t find an ally and keep up her ruse, then Sidonia’s welfare will be forfeit.

The Diabolic has a slow start, but ultimately finds its footing and exhibits great timing and enthralling plot developments from about page 150 on. Once you get used to the elaborate naming styles and galactic political structure author S.J. Kincaid has created, it’s much easier to track what’s happening and how characters fit into the world’s dynamic.

The book’s voice seems stilted and a little awkward at first, as Kincaid delegates the role of narrator to Nemesis, the emotionless Diabolic. However, the bold choice eventually pays off. It’s intriguing to peer into the mind of a character who analyzes everything as a threat and is constantly considering whether cold-blooded murder might be necessary to maintain her ruse and Sidonia’s safety. Seeing Nemesis’s sheer bafflement at the emotions of others is fascinating and slightly humorous, as is the confused terror that arises when she begins to feel these emotions for herself. Such “weaknesses” as human emotion should be physically impossible for a Diabolic, and yet…Nemesis has never felt so alive.

The Diabolic touches on several deep-seated issues of today, though they are veiled amid the setting of an elaborate space station with zero-gravity ballrooms and dramatic cosmetic surgery. The concept of breeding in a lab for selected traits is taken to an extreme in The Diabolic, but similar controversy surrounds surrogacy, “designer babies,” and embryonic stem cell research today. Just because Nemesis was deliberately crafted from a genetic blueprint and underwent developmental acceleration, does that make her less than human? Is she deserving of the same rights and respect as a “real” person?

Tension between science and faith is the other central conflict. Within the rigid Helionic faith that is the backbone of the Empire, Nemesis has to discern the fine line between which characters have true belief and who is construing the anti-science religion to advance their own schemes.

The casual use of recreational drugs by the nobility is a question left largely untouched, one I think could’ve added another layer to The Diabolic. As it stands, they serve mainly to illustrate the difference between Nemesis and the “real” humans. With her enhanced metabolism, she is unaffected by the court’s favorite pastime, which gives her an edge when people assume she’s unaware of her surroundings. The deepest I am able to read into it is that they serve as a cautionary tale for ignorance – is it okay to spend half your time in an opiate haze because your religion has essentially banned critical thinking?

The Diabolic is an engaging science fiction read once you get past the clunky beginning. Author S.J. Kincaid jumps into her created world with both feet, unafraid to push the envelope with the fashion, planetary systems, pastimes and genetic experiments described.This book definitely isn’t one where you can anticipate the ending. Once the plot picks up, it doesn’t slow down and the thrilling twists keep coming until the very last page. Recognizing the real-life issues masked by the fantastical world helps cut through what might otherwise be seen as extraneous glitz. At the heart of it, The Diabolic poses an essential query – what is the value of a life, and what does it mean to be human?

Bonus note: No cliffhanger! I believe this is a standalone, but even if more come in the future, The Diabolic functions perfectly well as a solo book.