Like any good cyberpunk story—or indeed any good speculative fiction story—should, Reality Testing: The Sundown Series: Book One (which I’ll simply refer to by its main title from here on) looks at the current state of the world and the issues plaguing us and puts them under the magnifying glass. Grant Price’s novel includes the power hungry corporations, urban decay and an increasingly violent population you would expect to find in the genre; however, it is the lens it uses to look at the climate crisis and gender politics that truly shines through.
Reality Testing tells the story of protagonist Mara, who, after awakening from artificial coma she volunteered for, awakens in a body that isn’t hers, and alongside a body she appears to have murdered. As all good protagonists in these situations do, she runs. From here, Price unveils a mystery that takes Mara through a world where the climate emergency sees corporations capitalising on this by mining carbon, women being deemed “obsol” now that technology enables men to bear genetically perfect children in under nine months (thereby expending less carbon) and the city is a police state patrolled by automatons dolling out harsh forms of justice.
The author has painted a bleak world, and throughout this story builds it up in brilliant ways. From the first page, I felt like I was in this world, discovering it for the first time alongside a protagonist who doesn’t know what is happening. Price slowly unveils the world as the protagonist gets her bearings, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere as Mara—and the reader—are bombarded with this dystopian world and everything that comes with it. The city in question is the Berlin of the future. This city is vivid in its detail, and its very own character. Price has written this with vivid detail, and as he hails from the city, I do wonder how much of the current Berlin is seen in this version.
However, as beautifully realised this world is, at times, I found this to be at the story’s detriment. In these instances, it feels like there is more focus being but on this version of Berlin, where more of this space could have been spent with the characters and events. Making this somewhat more difficult is some of the language used in the book, with phrases used by the characters hailing from this futuristic setting, making things a little difficult to parse.
As distracting as those aspects are, they are only a minor issue with what is otherwise an affecting, evocative book. And given the claustrophobic feel of this story, it feels as though these were some deliberate choices, even if they didn’t quite work for me. At 303 pages in paperback (or an estimated 276 swipes in your favourite eReader), this book is the perfect length to allow for the detail within the world while also letting ongoing mystery unfold.
Despite the detailed focus on the world, Reality Testing is a fast-paced story. Price keeps the plot moving quickly, and his ability to do so while spending so much time setting the scene is a testament to his skill. The plot has plenty of twists and turns, so the reader can never be certain of what to expect next, and the action sequences are all fleshed out well. The author packs a lot into these pages, and the result is thoroughly enjoyable.
The prose is skillfully written throughout Reality Testing, and the editing accentuates this. Throughout the book, I didn’t find a single turn of phrase that felt out of place; not a single passage felt remotely clunky. There were no words in the text that felt like they didn’t belong. While it tells a thoroughly enjoyable story, on a technical level, it is superbly written; one of the highest quality reads I have had the pleasure of making my way through all year. I should note that with everything Price packs into the book, however, it is not a light read, and this isn’t a book that you would want to skim.
The characters in this book are all well-realised and believable. The book shifts points of view fairly regularly and never suffers for this, as these characters are riveting. The minor characters are also memorable, but most importantly, incredibly enjoyable. There is not a single character in the book that didn’t feel like they don’t have their own history; in fact, I think just about every single one could lead their own story. I should also give a shout-out to all the non-binary and genderqueer characters included in Reality Testing, and how little attention was paid to this in the book, treating all characters, as, well… characters.
As you can probably gleam from Reality Testing’s subtitle, this is the first part of a series. However, this first entry stands on its own, and where there is far more for Price to mine in future instalments, you can pick it up, read it, and come away feeling like you have read a complete story. However, don’t be surprised if, after reading this, you are waiting for the next entry.
Aside from the writing of Reality Testing’s world occasionally obscuring the story, this is a wonderful read. If you enjoy cyberpunk, dystopian stories, speculative fiction or even simply science fiction, I thoroughly recommend reading it. It weaves a thoroughly enjoyable story and excellent characters into an expertly written narrative.
Boost. Pull. Boost. Pull. Skin scraped from fingers and forearms. Muscles on fire. Bones made of concrete. A fight to reach every platform. This was what happened when the system broke down. Labour and more labour for God’s original machine. Don’t look up. Don’t count the platforms. Just boost and pull.Reality Testing: The Sundown Series: Book One, Chapter 13
Reality Testing: The Sundown Series: Book One was provided by the author for the purpose of an honest review.
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