Nirvana - J.R. Stewart

[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I can't remember how I got approved. I think I received an invitation, months ago, but didn't get to reading the book until now. And then, halfway through, I realised what I had was the first ARC, and that I needed to download it again, because the author had rewritten a lot after the first batch of reviews. Or something to that extent? Anyway, I got the second version, and I'm glad I did. I still didn't like "Nirvana" in the end, but I can commend the effort, as there was quite some improvement compared to the first version. (On the other hand, it gets to show that when a book's in a first draft state, or close to it, it's really best not to publish it... Reviewers aren't beta-readers.)

The premise was definitely interesting: future dystopia, post-apocalyptic world after a series of environmental disasters, people living under tight control from corporations (mainly Hexagon), and blowing their hard-earned money on a virtual world named Nirvana—even as little as one quarter of an hour a week, as it's the only escape from daily drudgery in bunkers. In typical dystopian fashion, our heroine, Larissa (prefers to be called Kenders) discovers dark secrets while investigating into the death of her boyfriend Andrew. Also in typical dystopian fashion, there's a clear cut between the elite, the rich and famous, who can afford housing in "the Bubble", whereas the others are left to survive however they can: as Nirvana operators if they're lucky, as slaves in the Farms if they're not.

To be honest, it's pretty difficult for me to review only the second version, without thinking about the first one. The second version felt, all in all, smoother: where the first one threw me in a world where Kenders patrolled the wastelands as a soldier, without much sense of direction, here she felt much more integrated in her world, being a Nirvana operator. The technology seemed more real, too, better thought and described, and the narrative more logical: moving fast, but clearly not as over the place as the first version's was. I could tell where the story was improved, and in a way, I'm glad I got to read both versions (at least partially).

I didn't like it, though. A shame, but, well, it happens.

- The character's age, first. In the original story, Kenders was 24, Andrew and Serge a couple of years older... And this was good. Now Kenders is 17, the guys are 19-20, and this felt just so weird. I could believe in a 24-year-old now-soldier, ex-punk rocker/university student. But the same character aged 17, reflecting on all that stuff she had done "years ago"? Not believable, especially not when surrounded with people of the same type (so many "gifted kids" in one place, when nothing highlighted that fact = strange). Moreover, it cast a shadow on the Kenders-Andrew relationship: I always have a hard time with those "old couple-slash-soulmates forever" tropes when the characters are so young.

- The environmental disaster(s). They felt like they happened in 1-2 years, even if they were nothing new for the characters, and the world-building here was kind of lazy, too. The bees disappeared, OK, but they're not the only way plants can reproduce. Other species play a part as well. I wasn't sold on that one reason.

- The explanation heavy-handed "corporations are evulz" message.

- The beginning of the novel was smoother (the parts with Serge and in the Bubble made much more sense!), but the last chapters went so fast! One moment, this or that character was alive... then they were dead, and it happened in such a quick and dispassionate way that I was all "Wait, what... Oh... Am I supposed to feel sad, now?" I couldn't get invested in their lives, their emotions, in what was at stake for them. Kenders being in a punk rock band didn't add much to her personality, and the part with her father... didn't lead to much either?

- Some very, very stupid decisions. Of the too-stupid-to-live kind. Literally. Why did so-and-so have to engineer such a situation where they would end up dying along with the enemy, when there were likely other solutions? Why didn't they anticipate that the "bad guys" wouldn't come alone / wouldn't be fooled by the diversion? *That* kind of decisions. And Kenders wasn't especially clever.

- Nirvana itself. Mostly it was Kenders meeting Andrew in their 2-3 favourite online places. In the end, I didn't get the effect I was expecting (i.e. "lost in a virtual world / confusing virtual world with reality and vice versa"). Both worlds were always very clearly delimited in my opinion.

- The Red Door program. It gets lumped on us in the beginning and at the end, but there was no real central thread regarding this. I was under the impression it was here just because any dystopian world needs its oppressive, gets-rid-of-"dissenters" program.

- Info dumps. Lots of them. This didn't change much between the first and second versions.

- The love triangle. Not even worth mentioning. Uh.

Conclusion: An improved version, but one that would still need lots of work for me to enjoy it.