[I received a copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]
Very difficult to rate: interesting ideas and mind-challenging themes (the horrors of war, a dystopian United Kingdom after a huge financial and societal collapse, one man's vision to stop the war once and for all...), but quite a few chapters seemed to be meandering rather than carrying their purpose, and it made some parts somewhat dull to read.
The beginning introduces us to “If”, a current-era dystopian world where markets collapsed, people lost their jobs in droves, and where the mysterious “Process” (a c omputer? A mere clump of algorithms? Actual people behind it?) relocated some people into an apparent dream-slash-experimental community, making them coming back to simpler ways of life and set places in society in exchange for happiness. In this community, James, the bailiff, regularly dons his huge armor to evict those judged unworthy by the Process, blissfully unaware of what he actually does to them thanks to the implant in his brain controlling his actions. Where do the evictaed go? Not his problem.
Or is it?
As James starts to question his place in this new world, and his wife Ruth struggles with determining whether what her husband (and the Process) do is good or evil, made-up soldiers appear near the community: mindless, half-formed creatures given shape by the Process, to serve a goal nobody understands. Except for one, Hector, who seems to be more “advanced” than the others. The Institue, under the care of Alex Drown and Omega John, wants to study him, and task James with observing him. And so James is dragged little by little into the first World War, through the mystery behind Hector's existence. Meantime, in Suvla Bay during the Great War, a group of stretcher-bearers also try to make sense of their surroundings, of their role, and of a strange sniper always following and targetting them...
A lot of elements intertwine and mingle in this narrative. What is real and what is dream/illusion only isn't so clearly defined. Is War-James and Bailiff-James the same person, or not? Jumped back in time, or not? Is he forced to relive events of the past as an observer accidentally thrown in their middle, or does he stand a chance of actually making a difference? The story explores such themes, and more, through James and his fellow stretch-bearers, as well as through Ruth's parallel narrative. Reality and illusion are difficult to tell from each other, not before the last third of the book, and this strengthens the feelings of ubiquity and confusion the characters are going through. The futility of one's life in the trenches, fighting faceless enemies again and again, being wounded and dying for what appears to them as “nothing” – because they just cannot make sense out of that war anymore – hits right home when it comes to the Great War and to what it must have represented to people who lived it: the first such conflict the world saw, where the older ways of war were turned upside down and new, even more terribles ways of battling were born. (At least, that's always how I've felt regarding this particular set of events in history.)
The writing itself flows nicely, carrying well both the horrors of the illusion-or-not-illusion war and of the modern world, the feeling of betrayal Ruth and James have to contend with when it comes to the Process starting to behave erratically, and the betrayal experienced by the soldiers as their leaders remain so remote. “Abandoned by their leaders” is what may sum this up the best.
And yet I struggled through a good half of the book, very likely because the Great War part seemed to meander and loop on itself: good to enforce what the characters had to make sense of, but not so good for a reader trying to keep tabs on what was happening and find out what the true goal of the novel was. As for that, I'm not exactly quite sure, though I cannot help but think that, as misguided as the means may have been, the reasons of the “brain” behind it all made sense. A horrible sense, granted, but sense all the same.
It's hard to tell whether I liked this book or not. I'd probably give it 4 stars if the second third wasn't so confusing (in that it seemed to chase its own tail more than playing with my nerves). It was interesting, at any rate, and intriguing.