Dissonance

by Sophie Lack

Cover image

Publisher: Sophie Lack
Copyright: March 2015
ASIN: B00UI9Y96E
Format: Kindle
Pages: 156

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Kaveena is an agent for a very militarized interstellar force of special agents. Their role in the legal system of this universe is a bit unclear (more on that in a moment), but they seem to focus on law enforcement against large, organized gangs. In the opening chapter, she's on an infiltration mission alongside her partner Seleen to download potentially incriminating data from a well-defended base. Everything goes horribly wrong: Kaveena is critically injured, and Seleen has apparently gone back to her death to ensure her rescue.

I'm not quite sure how to write this review. It's a self-published novel that I ran across on Tumblr, so reviewing it against the standards of commercially-published fiction feels a bit unfair. In another era, this might be a trunk novel; now, people self-publish early work to share with friends and friends of friends and to get their career started, and people like me stumble across those novels. But I read it the way that I'd read any other novel, and I suspect the readers of my reviews would as well. This is therefore rather critical, but hopefully still constructive.

Dissonance is partly the story of Kaveena coming to terms with a disability (including what I believe is disassociation, about which I know almost nothing but which seems well-described here) and partly her search to understand what happened to Seleen and what she's doing. This involves ancient science fiction artifacts (okay, there was a lot of Halo in this, but I still enjoyed that bit and wanted more), a lot of fighting, and some significant atrocities. It's also about why Seleen was so distant even before the fateful mission that started the book. Kaveena and Seleen's relationship is the emotional heart of the book, involving how one copes with horrible past events and how to define heroism and justice.

This central story, read in isolation from the background world, isn't bad. It says some interesting things about trauma counseling and the desire to say the things that makes the counselor happy, and other interesting things about the desire to break the rules of civilized behavior to do something about intractable problems. None of it is groundbreaking, but there's thoughtfulness here. But the romance angle was hurt for me by never seeing what Kaveena saw in Seleen. Lack starts in the middle of their relationship, so the reader doesn't see what attracted Kaveena in the first place, and I found some of her mannerisms grating (like calling Kaveena "dear"). This might be a matter of personal taste; those who liked Seleen would probably like this book more.

In contrast, the world background, specifically the political background, against which this plays out makes very little sense. The agency Kaveena works for seems to be essentially untethered from meaningful oversight or political control. People in this book do horrific things that should cause aftershocks and carry major consequences, and yet the consequences simply disappear. I was trying to ignore this and apply video game logic, but that got harder and harder, culminating in an ending that I found unbelievable. The emotional line somewhat made sense, but there's no way that any coherent and reasonable universe would have allowed the ending this book has.

Lack goes a very different direction here than typical abuses of authority, but the more I thought about the implicit background of the world that would make this plot possible, the more disturbing I found the prospects of abuse by the agency Kaveena works for. The story has realistic psychological implications and a type of law enforcement burnout, so it can't appeal to magically perfect psychology like the Lensman series, but there's no accountability. In a logical extrapolation of this universe, the abuses of power Kaveena would be complicit in would be the unavoidable story. The actual plot focuses entirely on trolley-problem ethical dilemmas and seems oblivious to the risk of straightforward abuse of power.

At the sentence level, well, this is self-published early fiction. If you're used to the polish of commercial fiction, Dissonance is a bit hard to read at first. I had to kick my brain into a different mode to read past clunky sentences. None of it was awful, but, for example, this is typical:

Eventually the group wrapped up for the day and she left, parting ways with the rest of them to walk a quiet route back to her apartment.

There are too many words in this sentence for the work that it's doing in the story: "parting ways with the rest of them" instead of "alone," or "wrapped up for the day" instead of "ended." It's trying to show, but lapses into a bit of telling: what makes the route quiet? And Dissonance is frequently descriptive in places that more polished writing is immediate: the counselor could end the group instead of saying the group wrapped up, or Kaveena could decline an invitation from other group members instead of just parting ways.

This is just something that comes with time and practice, not any intrinsic flaw, but it made it hard for me to stay focused on the story.

That's a lot of negativity, and I can't say I'd recommend Dissonance, but there is potential in the emotional through line. I felt like the part of the story Lack was focusing on had punch; the rest of the infrastructure just wasn't strong enough to support it.

Rating: 4 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-12-24

Last modified and spun 2017-12-25