Disclaimer: The purpose of these reviews isn’t to recommend books for readers; it is to help writers learn from fiction. I only review books I happen to love or find particularly interesting from a craft perspective. I don’t promise to avoid spoilers unless the book isn’t published yet.
I read Goodreads reviews of this to get some context on other readers’ thoughts, and I kept coming across the word “stabby,” which is actually a pretty great adjective to describe this book.
The Diabolic by S. J. Kincaid is about Nemesis, a human genetically-engineered to be a perfect body guard (a diabolic). She grows up in a pen designed to teach her to hate and kill others. However, using advanced technology, her captors change her brain to love and protect one person: Sidonia, a wealthy senator’s daughter.
When the emperor of the universe calls Sidonia to the palace to account for her father’s crimes, the family sends Nemesis instead (after some severe bone-shaving body modification to hide her diabolic status). Nemesis has to pretend to be human while dodging political dangers—and in the process, she realizes she is more human than she thought.
As a character, Nemesis breaks many of the molds that people have about female characters. She’s deadly. We see her kill two characters within the first act. However, her single-handed devotion to Sidonia is a perennial save-the-cat for her. It’s hard to hate someone who has devoted her life to protecting another human.
The setting is also counterintuitive. It’s set far into the future, when humans have colonized various galaxies and can travel at lightspeed. However, the ruling faction in power have chosen to scourge scientific progress and worship the cosmos in a “Helionic” religion. Technology is maintained by robots, and humans have little knowledge of how the technology they use works.
The Diabolic subverts expectations in the most delightful way. We have a protagonist who self-asserts her own lack of humanity. The writing is first-person point of view and carries some of the stilted, serious rhetoric you’d expect from someone designed to kill. At the same time, Nemesis keeps surprising the reader. She quickly makes friends with someone who isn’t politically advantageous. She adopts a genetically-modified dog that reminds her of herself. And then. . . she falls in love with the prince and starts a revolution.
This last part probably sounds like something you’ve heard before. However,
The prince (Tyrus) has been feigning psychosis for years to gain political advantage and turns out to be just as stabby as Nemesis.
The romance never falls into the “insta-love” mold. What starts as a political union together turns into genuine attraction.
Nemesis fights her growing feelings for Tyrus and examines the bigger questions about what a relationship would mean for her humanity.
Read The Diabolic for the array of cool futuristic technology, royal court drama with gravity-free dances, and surprising slow-burn romance. From a craft perspective, read it for the way Kincaid plays with reader expectations.
Rating: 5 stars for this stabby space opera.
You can buy it here.