Cipher - S.E. Bennett

[I got a copy from the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]


I quite liked this novel, though I must admit I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had expected.

The Basement setting and situation were intriguing, and I found the story as a whole pervaded with a feeling of oppression. It was more an impression than definite proof, but I had the nagging feeling that everyone was always being watched by someone else. Maybe because of the Feeds, maybe because Cipher remained aware that she had to watch her back at all times, and acknowledged that as soon as she’d let her guard down, it’d be the end. (And I agree she was right in thinking so!)


Cipher was a likeable character, one who was aware of the problems she was in, yet tried to keep fighting, even if it meant lying low for a while. She wasn’t a whiner, she kept focused on what she wanted and hoped for, and she knew how to put her coding and engineering skills to use in order to build a few backdoors. She only allowed herself to trust a handful of people, and wasn’t fooled by the shiny varnish and empty promises of the Municipality. While there were hints of a potential romance too (perhaps even a triangle), she kept her priorities straight and never let herself be engulfed into that, the way too many characters unfortunately seem to do as soon as a love interest appears. Love was an important motivator for her; however, it was ‘love’ in a wider sense, encompassing friendship and wanting to protect the few people she held dear—not the old-as-sin trope of True Love At First Sight Forever for a boy she had just met. And she remained ‘faithful’ to the Basement people, to her father, even to her sisters, in that she mourned them like the people they had been, and didn’t forget about them as soon as she was out, nor no matter how dire her own circumstances.


I also liked the siblings: Oona for her entusiasm for gardening and living things, in a world so devoid of positive life and new births; and Bowen for being overall sympathetic, understanding, and ready to take calculated risks to get the truth out.


A few things bothered me nevertheless. I expected Tor to be more… impressive when it came to planning, and the same went for Sally (deemed quite the strategist, after all). Some things are explained later when it comes to Tor, but I thought his mother wasn’t so foreseeing, and it seemed a little jarring. (Minor quibble about Tor: his way of calling Cipher ‘love’. It’s probably just me, but I can’t stand that, just like I can’t stand ‘babe’.) I wondered about a couple of inconsistencies, too: for instance, how come Cipher didn’t remember Tor from the Basement, when she was only two years younger, and she said she knew everybody there? She was rather young at the time, yet since she remembered classes she took when she was 4-5, I would’ve thought she would remember him as well?


At times, Cipher’s thoughts also intruded too much on the narrative. They weren’t useless, and contained important information, so they weren’t a problem in themselves; only they tended to interrupt the flow, and made me wonder if they wouldn’t have been better included elsewhere.


I wished Bowen and Oona had been given more importance, probably because of The Truth (the unauthorised Feed they broadcast in the beginning): the latter looked like a useful tool, able to ignite a lot of things, yet it just went away, and the siblings became more and more like ‘people to protect’, and not ‘people who mattered thanks to their actions’. (Perhaps I also slightly resented how Oona was important due to

her pregnancy

(show spoiler)

; it made sense within the context of that specific world, but I tend to find such things annoying. As a woman, I’m not at ease with the idea that what makes me important is

my ability to have children

(show spoiler)

; I want to believe we’re much more than that. This is however a very personal observation, and I doubt it’ll be a problem for every reader.)


In general, I liked this novel, and if there were to be a next installment—the ending kind of begs for one, especially now that


(show spoiler)

has appeared—I’d probably want to read it. I just can’t push myself to give it more than 3 stars.