The Diabolic (2016) is set in some distant future, when humans have settled the galaxy using spaceships that travel through hyperspace. Humanity has also been experimenting with genetic engineering, and for a period of time it becomes fashionable to purchase so-called Diabolics as bodyguards. Diabolics are cloned humans, engineered to have superior strength and resistance to sickness and poisons, and trained from early childhood to be skilled and ruthless fighters and killers, with no regard for anyone but the person they are chemically induced to love and protect. They are given names like Hazard and Enmity to reflect their dangerous role and, one assumes, to strike terror into the heart of any who might oppose them.
Nemesis is a young Diabolic girl, raised in a pen surrounded by a force field, treated as less than human by her keepers, and forced to kill regularly as part of her training. So when Senator von Impyrean and his family visit the corrals, looking for a Diabolic bodyguard for their daughter Sidonia, Nemesis quickly dispatches three adult male convicts that the Senator’s wife sends against her, to prove her worth. The keepers take Nemesis and Sidonia to a lab, where Nemesis’ undersized frontal cortex is induced to grow by an electrode treatment. Through that process she is emotionally bonded to Sidonia, who becomes her sole reason to live.
Sidonia cares for Nemesis as well, so much than when Diabolics are outlawed about eight years later, Sidonia and her parents protect Nemesis from the emperor’s extermination order, hiding her among their other servants. Soon after, when political tensions worsen in the galactic Empire, the Emperor orders the children and heirs of senators whose loyalties are in question to travel to the Imperial Court as royal hostages. Sidonia’s father has been committing heresy by studying science, a forbidden subject (more on that later) and sharing it with the unwashed masses, called the Excess by the Empire’s ruling class, so Sidonia is one of those required to come to the Emperor’s court. But no one has ever seen Sidonia’s actual face, which enables her desperate mother to hatch a plan: Nemesis is given the job of impersonating Sidonia (a treasonous offense) in the Emperor’s court. There she will find danger, political intrigue at the highest levels, and corruption … and perhaps love.
Society in The Diabolic is clearly inspired by ancient Greco-Roman culture, with a science fictional twist to it. That aspect of the world-building rings true, with its distinctions between classes and the many benefits available to the ruling class that aren’t shared with the lower classes. Less successful is the concept that the Empire is currently controlled by an anti-technology religious faction, Luddites who violently reject all knowledge of science (scientific books are outlawed) and development of any new technology, but inexplicably see no harm in using most of the technology that’s currently in place. So they’re executing or punishing people for studying science whilst using spaceships, high tech body sculpting, etc. Their society relies on machines to keep their current technology in working order, but gradually that process is breaking down. In particular, spaceships are failing in hyperspace, killing all aboard and leaving permanent, deadly holes in space. The inconsistencies in this worldview overcame my ability to suspend disbelief, as did some of the lite-science, like where Nemesis’ frontal cortex is electrically stimulated to grow to full size over a matter of hours.
Another aspect that seems to reflect ancient Roman society is the death and violence. The body count in The Diabolic is quite high, with Nemesis herself responsible for a good many of those deaths. This is balanced to some extent by the romance part of the plot. It’s a fairly standard YA romance, with misunderstandings and I’ll-die-for-you’s mixed up together, but the object of Nemesis’ growing affections is an interesting character in his own right, involved in life-and-death plots and plans against the Emperor. As Nemesis grows to care for him, the first person besides Sidonia who has touched her heart, she begins to question whether she actually has worth as a person, in a world where those who are genetically engineered are viewed as disposable possessions. This, and the twisty political intriguing and backstabbing for control of the empire, were highlights in this novel.
The Diabolic will appeal to readers who enjoy a mix of light science fiction and young adult romance. It works well as a stand-alone read, although S.J. Kincaid has indicated that two sequels will be forthcoming. I’ll be interested in following the further adventures of Nemesis and her friends. I received a free copy of this book as part of a Quarterly Literary YA Box, which included a copy of this book with a couple of dozen Post-it notes with comments from the author, giving some interesting additional insights into The Diabolic.