Title: The Diabolic
Author: S.J. Kincaid
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Rating: ★★★☆☆ || 2.5
So Diabolic is being described as Star Wars meets The Hunger Games meets The Red Queen, and as far as I’m aware it lives up to those expectations, but I’d add in a touch of Jupiter Ascending also––and I mean that as a good thing, as someone who thoroughly enjoyed the film and did not think it was trash.
Nemesis is a Diabolic, a creature bred to bond with and protect –– and love –– only one person. Thus, when her master, Sidonia, is called to a treacherous court, Nemesis is chosen to go in her place, to keep her safe. But the court itself is a cesspit, and Nemesis may find that humanity (and, of course, love) are not so far from her grasp as she thought.
Whoo boy is this a complicated novel to talk about.
[Spoilers under the cut]
On a narrative level, I enjoyed this a lot. It features so many of my favourite tropes, the world is vivid and interesting, and and the murky politics of the novel taint every single political player in it, including the love interest, which I so love because love is complicated and politics are complicated and it’s a boring novel where no one is implicated in the shady dealings of SPACE REVOLUTION!!!!!!! (Do you hear the people sing, etc).
This reflects of the murky politics of the concept of the novel itself, though –– the Diabolic are engineered to attach themselves to one specific person, the only person they are capable of loving –– and that love is not uncomplicated by questions of agency and selfhood and power. Kincaid sets this up really well, and does a good job of distancing Nemesis from normal (insofar as we can be normal) human reactions. But she never follows through, and a really cool concept that raises so many interesting questions falls flat in execution. In particular, the relationship between Nemesis and Sidonia is really fraught with all sorts of questions –– what is love under coercion? Can you really, truly love someone you were engineered to love, who you had no choice in loving? Can you truly love someone who, for all intents and purposes, owns you?
But because Donia is presented as an ideal master who insists on the fact of Nemesis’ humanity, the problem of this really messy love is brushed to the wayside and made benign, which is intensely troubling.
Also troubling is Nemesis’ lack of agency. This is necessarily a bad thing –– I’m not actually a reader who has a problem with reactive characters, but in a novel that deals so much with personal and political power, and in particular the power Nemesis has to control her own destiny when she has been a tool who has literally been bred for someone else’s benefit, it would have been nice to see Nemesis exerting more control over her self and her situation. Especially in the context of her servitude, first to Donia and then to Tyrus. She has such limited control of all of her own actions that nearly all of the major plot points and decisions in the novel originate from someone else and are enacted upon her, a narrative form of the servitude pressed upon her. All of her own decisions are consistently undermined, and at best she gets to decide to make the best of her situation, but even that isn’t a true decision.
And because this novel was so full of fresh concepts and ideas, it’s also really disappointing to see Kincaid fall back on old tropes and ideas –– there is a particularly egregious case of Bury Your Gays™ that is as offensive as it is shocking, particularly because this character’s death is used in large part to raise the stakes and impact the central romance and move the plot forward. That is to say that this character’s death isn’t significant for their own sake, but rather because it impacts someone else. Even the death of the single queer character doesn’t belong to themselves. And in an environment where, for example, the writers of The 100 feel like it’s necessary to kill off Lexa mere moments after she and Clarke consummate their relationship, this comes off as tone deaf at best.
The other thing that separates this novel from, for example, a truly great example of political maneuvering like The King of Attolia is in the subtlety of the character’s machinations. In the cases of both these novels, the narrator is a third party observer who is close to the political figure in question and is a large part of their path to the consolidation of power. But in King of Attolia, Eugenides’ plottings are well-concealed from the reader until he chooses to reveal them, even when the reader may be attuned to the fact of his maneuvers from previous books. This strengthens the effect of his intellect and really drives home how brilliant a politician he is. In The Diabolic, on the other hand, Tyrus’ ambitions are clear from the start, even to a casual reader, and his “madness” carries a lot of additional baggage and stigma and stereotyping against neurodivergent people that Gen’s obfuscating foppishness and incompetence doesn’t.
Similarly messy are this novel’s racial politics. To be honest, I’m not liable to take seriously the words of anyone who thinks that epicanthic folds are synonymous with monolids and that either is a recessive trait, but beyond that, there is an element of playing around with race that was perhaps meant benignly in the context of Cool! Futuristic! Technology! which enabled Nemesis to pass for Donia at court, but read as being so much more malicious in this present climate, particularly since Nemesis’ natural colouring is blonde and blue eyed. Even if the world of the novel prizes darker skin, we as readers are still subject to the standard of this world, and when both main leads have light skin and are coded as white, that Tells Us Something about our world –– a very unpleasant something, when the only major character who explicitly has naturally darker skin is brutally killed.
Sci-fi and fantasy, insofar as much as they are meant to be “alternate spaces” and “speculative worlds,” are not completely divorced from real-world implications, as we saw in last year’s Sad/Rabid Puppies Hugo Awards fiasco. These are never just innocent things and the idea of altering one’s skin tone, eye colour, eye shape, bone structure –– of, in essence, putting on and taking off racialised features at whim and at will –– casts a nasty shadow in a world where we are soon to see Scarlett Johansson play Motoko Kusanagi, Benedict Cumberbatch play Dr. Strange (with Tilda Swinton as some weird Orientalist mess), while Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills was violently killed off on Sleepy Hollow after seasons of being edged out of her own show, and Arden Cho wasn’t even notified until the last minute that she wasn’t going to be in Season Six of Teen Wolf.
Of course, this novel was written quite a while before any of these things happened in such quick succession, so I’m not writing this to blame Kincaid for not being aware (unless she’s a prophet or a seer or an oracle, in which case boo hiss) of the current climate, but these problems aren’t recent ones that have just now sprung up; these are old problems that are once more resurfacing, and to write in ignorance of that is really questionable in a novel set in the future. Or any novel, period.
That doesn’t mean I want to dismiss the novel outright, because like I said, I did genuinely enjoy it. It was vivid and visceral, and the worldbuilding was really enchanting, but it gave all of its attention to the less interesting elements of the novel and didn’t do nearly enough work with the potential it had. Overall, this was something that I really enjoyed, but the enjoyment was spiked with annoyance at some of these boring and regressive tropes, particularly in a novel that supposedly champions science and progress.