In These Eyes: A Review of Vicarious by Paula Stokes

26114131Title: Vicarious (Vicarious #1)
Author: Paula Stokes
Genre: Science Fiction / Mysteru
Publisher: Tor
Publication Date:  August 16th, 2016
Kindle Edition: 336 Pages
Source: Personal Purchase

Winter Kim and her sister, Rose, have always been inseparable. Together, the two of them survived growing up in a Korean orphanage and being trafficked into the United States. But they’ve escaped the past and started over in a new place where no one knows who they used to be.

Now they work as digital stunt girls for Rose’s ex-boyfriend, Gideon, engaging in dangerous and enticing activities while recording their neural impulses for his Vicarious Sensory Experiences, or ViSEs. Whether it’s bungee jumping, shark diving, or grinding up against celebrities at the city’s hottest dance clubs, Gideon can make it happen for you—for a price.

When Rose disappears and a ViSE recording of her murder is delivered to Gideon, Winter is devastated. She won’t rest until she finds her sister’s killer. But when the clues she uncovers conflict with the digital recordings her sister made, Winter isn’t sure what to believe. To find out what happened to Rose, she’ll have to untangle what’s real from what only seems real, risking her life in the process.

“Clouds of steam blanket the mirror as the scalding water turns my hands pink. I close my eyes and count to ten. My flesh protests, But I lather for another ten seconds and then rinse. The pain washes away the memories”.

Everyone wants something. More specifically, everyone wants something else- a life, a lover, and experience they can’t or don’t have easily within their grasp. Winter Kim and her sister Rose help their employer and guardian Gideon provides those experiences. For the right price, anyone can bungee jump off a cliff, swim with sharks- or break into a multi-million dollar corporation and steal sensitive documents. Gideon is the creator of VISE, a virtual reality technology that lets people record their experiences so that others can enjoy them. The VISE tech records sensory input; taste, touch, smell, sound… all of this captured so that the person playing the recording feels every tiny detail exactly as the recorder felt it. Winter sticks to her assigned jobs, mostly those of the less than legal nature, while Rose often moonlights recording more tantalizingly- and in some ways more dangerous- erotic fair, such as switch parties and intense club scenes. When a recording of Rose’s death is delivered to Gideon, a recording that doesn’t quite add up to reality, Winter becomes obsessed with finding out what really happened to her sister.

The hook for Vicarious promises a cyperpunk-esque murder mystery, and Tor’s video ad for the book only reinforces that impression. As a fan of both genres, I dropped Vicarious on my pre-order list the first time I came across it. It arrived just in time for me to take it along on a business trip, and it kept me engaged through multiple flight changes and layovers.

Vicarious almost disappointed me. I really was jonesing for a good cyberpunk story, and the tech elements were not as front and center as I expected. Yes, the VISE tech and Winter’s job as a recorder is central to the story, but at the same time, it wasn’t nearly so tech heavy as I was expecting. I was expecting something a bit more Johnny Mnemonic, or more reminiscent of the film Strange Days. While Vicarious’s plot certainly seems influenced by the latter, the VISE tech serves more as a vehicle for plot delivery and twists than as the driving force I expected.

However, I didn’t care. The book may not have delivered what I expected, but what it delivered instead was fantastic.

As we uncover more and more of the truth behind Rose’s murder, we also uncover more and more of the truth behind Winter. The author establishes from the beginning that Winter suffers from several mental conditions, the most significant of which PTSD brought about from their time spent as unwilling currency in the sex trafficking industry. Winter’s reality slowly unravels the longer she is without her sister, and the closer she gets to discovering the truth of what happened. I found myself completely engaged in Winter’s story and struggles. The murder, the corporate espionage, the blackmail threats- all of this was interesting and necessary, but they really served as catalysts to Winter’s development. She grows in a believable way throughout the book, and her struggles with her illness felt strikingly familiar.

Vicarious is not a story about a girl caught up in solving the mystery of her sister’s murder. Vicarious is a story about a girl struggling to maintain her control on her reality when everything she knows is falling down around her. It treats the difficult topics of PTSD, self-harm, and suicidal behaviors in a way that is believable, even within the story’s slightly futuristic framework. The twist at the end, well… let’s just say that it wasn’t the twist I was expecting.

Vicarious is the first of a duology, but was written to be a complete story in and of itself. If you’re looking for an engaging read that features a primarily PoC cast, with an alt reality future flair, I’d definitely pick up this one.