Reviewer’s Note: This review was written in exchange for an ARC given to me for free by the author in exchange for an honest review.
Some weeks back I started answering an Internet meme titled the “30 Day Book Challenge.” A Google search will likely bring up a host of variations, but the one I’m currently answering has the following challenge for Day 7: “A Book That’s Hard to Read.” In my response to that challenge, I explained that I had read a lot of books that were “hard to read,” but I’ve never thought of that as a negative quality to any book I encounter, save for a very few. I tend to think this way because there have been quite a few books in my reading lifetime that I’ve thought were difficult, or which other people thought were difficult, but which I found to be enjoyable enough as long as one is patient or willing to embrace the text for the duration one is reading it. Such books are often very rewarding, and reaching the end of one tends to result in a satisfying feeling of accomplishment. Even better, many such books reward repeated reading, offering something new every time the reader goes back to read it.
This was most certainly the case with Madame Einzige: Amor Fati by Ismael Sarepta. Best described as a near-future dystopic cypher-punk novel, Madame Einzige is set in a bleak, war-torn scenario for the future based on the possible results of contemporary political, religious, and technological issues. All the events are set in Central Asia and parts of the Middle East: areas that have long histories written in the fire and blood of war, where conflicts that are only minimally covered, if at all, by major news outlets occur on a regular basis. In the near-future setting of Madame Einzige, various groups with various motivations but with the same goal – to secure power in the region – struggle amongst themselves and the larger, vastly more powerful presences of Russia and the United States.
Onto this bloody stage comes Madame Einzige, formerly affiliated with the military of Communist Germany, but now operating on her own agenda. She enters volatile Central Asia looking for a Magi (a term used to describe the elite hackers and cypher-punks of this near-future world) who has holed up somewhere in the area, and whom she must now rescue and bring to safety. En-route to her goal, she gets sidetracked by revolutionaries and rebels with their own agendas, intent on using her and unique set of skills in order to ensure that their own goals are brought into fruition – for better or for worse depends entirely on where one stands in the conflict.
The first thing I noticed about the novel was its unique formatting, meant to mimic corrupted files supposedly created from the memories of Einzige herself: files that capture her thoughts and memories as she experienced them. Now, I read quite a bit of sci-fi, but this is the first time I ever recall encountering a novel with that much computer code, and right from the get-go, too. I mention this because it is entirely possible for a reader to be thrown off by it, especially if said reader is not particularly interested in computer code, but I will say that it is possible to skim the coding without it interfering much with one’s understanding of the rest of the novel.
What the average reader may value it for, however, is how it sets the stage for the rest of the nature of the novel itself: a combination of storytelling and philosophical musings as Einzige searches for the missing Magi, and contemplates on her own actions and the actions of those around her. If one does not grasp that simple fact – that this novel is, in essence, a collection of files drawn from the direct memories of the narrator herself – then the reader may find the rest of the novel a difficult proposition indeed.
Once the reader gets into the rest of the novel, he or she may find it quite dense, especially when Einzige begins delivering information on this or that revolutionary movement, or frames a situation in Nietzschean philosophy. This discussion can make for fascinating reading, particularly when one begins to draw parallels between today’s events to their possible ramifications in the dystopic future projected by the novel, or if one is interested in the philosophy being discussed. In particular, I enjoyed the latter third of the novel, when Einzige has a rather intense philosophical discussion about religion and the nature of God with an imam in Tajikistan. Although one aspect of the novel’s plot might form the basis for an excellent military thriller, there is also much that rewards slowing down and lingering to consider what is being said.
However, it is also possible to see the above as a flaw in the storytelling, as well. While it is understandable that the plot takes the form it does because of the nature of where it comes from (as suggested by the computer code at the very beginning of the novel), I found myself occasionally thinking that Einzige’s information and philosophical musings could have been better incorporated into the narrative, allowing me to discover both more through the characters around her and her own actions, instead of having everything delivered to me like a lecture. As a frequent reader of genre fiction, I am accustomed to having to work a little to learn about a world and the characters in it, instead of having all the information dumped on my head before proceeding with the rest of the action of the novel.
As for Einzige herself, I think her to be quite interesting as a character, sure in herself in some ways, but not in others. It is obvious that she has seen a lot of conflict, and has very little tolerance for idiots (possibly my favorite quality about her), but towards the middle portion of the novel, and towards its end, it becomes clear that she is not as wise as she believes herself to be. It is made quite obvious that her thinking is grounded firmly (perhaps too firmly?) in Western concepts and Western philosophy, which is not always a good fit with the somewhat more mystical ideas of the Middle East and Central Asia. Again I refer to the conversation she has with the imam in Tajikistan, towards the end of the novel: grounded as she is in Nietzschean philosophy she has something of a hard time grasping what the imam is trying to tell her.
Overall, Madame Einzige: Amor Fati is an interesting read, if a little difficult to engage with at first. There is a lot of info-dumping going on, particularly in the first four or five chapters of the novel, but once the reader gets past that point it becomes a bit easier to take. The strength of this novel, however, most assuredly lies in its projections of the near-future based on today’s headlines and current issues, as well as on the heroine herself. Anyone interested in philosophy as it relates to contemporary politics and religion will certainly find something to enjoy about this novel, and as for the plot, it is interesting enough that the reader will look forward to finding out if Einzige does find that Magus or not – or survives the next catastrophe on the horizon, whichever comes first.