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Simulacrum Paperback – March 27, 2015
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Really, it's fascinating and sexy in all the best ways--the sex serves to expose ever more facets of the characters, the dialogue is in turns realistically frustrating and humorous, and the worlds Darcy has created interact in a way that reminds me of Andrew M. Greeley's "God Game," one of my sci-fi favorites.
Also, I fell in love with all the characters (especially Ruby, but I'm a sucker for well-conceived lesbians), and love the way the "RL" setting and the "Simulnet" setting cause the characters to interact. And the murder mystery at the heart of it all is very clever--and ooh! I won't spoil you. But how the ending plays out totally surprised me.
Erotic fiction has gotten a bit of a bad name as sales bin literature only read by sexually frustrated housewives in their forties. It is supposed to be poorly written with flimsy plot and one-dimensional characters, and the truth is that, yes, a lot of erotic fiction is like that. But not all of it.
After spending many years in fan communities and reading a lot of fan fiction it is clear to me that there is a lot of solid, good erotic literature out there. A lot of it is written as fan fiction where the writers borrow characters and universes from already established canons. But just because it is fan fiction doesn't make it bad writing. On the contrary, fan fiction gives budding authors the freedom to experiment with narrative styles, character development, and a lot of other things, because there are a lot of steps they can skip since the readers already know the background for the story. That being said, the transition from fan fiction to original fiction is tough exactly because of this.
Rian Darcy comes from the fan fiction universe, but is one of the few writers who has come out and written her own original story. That, in itself, is a major feat.
Now, back to my original point; I completely forgot this was erotica, and in my eyes, that is a sign of really good erotica. When I read something, I don't want to be constantly aware of the genre I'm reading. I want to read a good story with a solid plot and interesting characters. Simulacrum has all that. Darcy manages to make the erotic parts of the novel glide effortlessly into the story without distracting the reader. For me, distraction from the story is the worst that can happen, because it makes me lose interest. I want to disappear into a story, and I don't want to emerge until I choose to do so myself.
Simulacrum takes place in a not-too-distant future where Simulnet offers escapism to anyone who wants it. Simulnet is a virtual reality you can log into and let yourself go crazy. You can be however you want, and you can do pretty much whatever you want. Naturally, this means that there is a dark, sexual underbelly of sex clubs that offer anything and everything you could possibly desire. It is in this underbelly of the Simulnet world that a young L.A. detective finds himself when he embarks on a murder investigation. He teams up with the mysterious Lore to solve the murders of two young women. Along the way, they come across several more than deviant characters, and our main character Shaun that his interest in Lore might be a bit more than professional.
What makes Simulacrum so interesting is its mix of the classic 30s and 40s detective pulp fiction and science fiction. The mood has an almost Chandler-esque feel to it, especially in Darcy's descriptions of Los Angeles, and you can almost smell the smoke of fire season. At the same time, the story describes seriously advanced technology and computer science that a novice like me knows absolutely nothing about. This brings me on to my next point of praise; language.
The language of Simulacrum is easy to read, but at no point do I feel like Darcy is babying me as a reader. She doesn't bother explaining every little thing that might not be common knowledge, but at the same time, she makes sure that I don't feel lost even though I'm not at all a coding buff. The language is both effective and to the point with too much dilly-dallying, and yet, Darcy sneaks in little linguistic curiosities here and there that keeps me on my toes so I don't grow bored. And of course, the humor deserves some praise, too. The constant banter and bickering between Shaun and Lore had me laughing out loud several times, and it serves as good counterpart to the intense suspense that permeates most of the story.
The best part of Simulacrum is the plot and the characters. When you read the summary, it might sound like something you've heard before, but don't be fooled. The plot is refreshingly new, and it twists and turns in many unexpected directions that even I, an otherwise pretty experienced detective novel reader, couldn't for the life of me figure out the end. It was a true joy to re-read the story and find all the little hints and clues Darcy has spread out through the story and then eventually ties together with a neat bow at the end. Normally, when I read detective novels, I always find myself go, "But why didn't they address this or that?" There is none of that in Simulacrum. Everything ties together so beautifully towards the end that it's almost ridiculous, and the best part about it is that it does this without getting boring. Darcy leaves just enough mystery to make me want a sequel.
Just like the plot, the characters seem, on the surface, to be something you've seen before; Shaun, the slightly bright-eyed cop and Lore, the mysterious and genius stranger with the secret past. But once again, Darcy makes it her own. No one is what they seem, and it makes you care deeply for the characters. Especially Lore is a beautifully crafted character. He is, in some ways, a friendly nod to Darcy's great love of Sherlock Holmes, but he is entirely his own character and lives and breathes on the pages without any help from the British detective. Even the minor characters like Blake, Hudson, and Ruby come out as fully-fledged personalities. They each serve their purpose to the story, but they are so much more than just one-dimensional plot devices. They contribute personality to the story and make it even more vibrant.
I could go on forever about this story, but I won't, because I want you to go read it for yourselves. All I want to say is that this is a truly great story with something on its mind. It is exciting, scary, sexy, touching, and everything in between. It will leave you wanting more, more of Shaun and Lore, and more of Darcy's excellent writing and flair for language.
True, it's urban fantasy, better, an alternative reality that is developing in parallel with real life; people have avatars, and there is an entire world, Simulnet, where avatars can live a parallel life for their owners. Problem is that people is also dying, and death is not for fake. Shaun is a newbie LAPD detective who wants to "prove" himself; just out of college, good grades and good background, he was not good enough for the more prestigious FBI Agency, and even no, in the LAPD, he is not doing the "cool" job. So when his boss asks him if he wants to go undercover in Simulnet to find out a serial killer targeting young women, an investigation that is not exactly legal, since LAPD has no jurisdiction in Simulnet, Shaun is all for the task. And when he meets Lore, his assigned partner, he delves even more in the lure of Simulnet.
Shaun has never really questioned his sexuality; he experimented in college both with female than male partners, and so he considers himself quite "open" to possibilities, but then he opted for women. True, he is not very lucky in finding the right woman, despite his meddling twin sister. And so when he starts to prove something more than friendly admiration for the very "cool" Lore, he also starts to reconsidering all his life.
But he has only ever met Lore in Simulnet, he doesn't know anything about him, and by the way, Lore is always advising him on how "fake" that world can be, where everyone can be who they want, not who they really are. What if Lore is not whom he claims to be? What if he is not even a man? What if he is a woman? What if he is not even a he or she?
I liked how the author played with Shaun's, and the reader's, mind, questioning everything that seemed simple, even a late coming out of a guy, with the many chances that an alternative/parallel reality can give you. Is Shaun maturing into his real persona, having a late coming out, or is he actually feeling as an avatar, what he should feel in the real world for his right partner?