Rewriting the Script: A review of Binary, by Stephanie Saulter

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Series: (R)Evolution, Book 2 | Genre: SF | Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books | Publication date: April 3rd 2014 | This edition: ARC | My rating: 5/5

When confiscated genestock is stolen out of secure government quarantine, DI Sharon Varsi finds herself on the biggest case of her career: chasing down a clever thief, a mysterious hacker, and the threat of new, black-market gemtech.

Zavcka Klist, ruthless industrial enforcer, has reinvented herself. Now the head of Bel’Natur, she wants gem celebrity Aryel Morningstar’s blessing for the company’s revival of infotech – the science that spawned the Syndrome, nearly destroyed mankind and led to the creation of the gems. With illness in her own family that only a gemtech can cure, Aryel’s in no position to refuse.

As the infotech programme inches towards a breakthrough, Sharon’s investigations lead ever closer to the dark heart of Bel’Natur, the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s past… and what Zavcka Klist is really after.

This time last year I requested, read and have ever since raved about Gemsigns, Stephanie Saulter’s debut novel, to which¬†Binary is her follow-up. With that in mind I had an immense amount of anticipation for this book, and Saulter’s own bar was impressively high. Ever optimistic, I had faith that her sophomore effort would be just as good.

I suspect it was better.

NOTE: Below will be relatively minor spoilers for this book/Gemsigns, so if you haven’t read it and wish to remain un-spoilered, look away now!

Binary picks up a significant amount of time after the events of the first book, during which breathing room has been taken, and all the drama has settled out into aftermath and, following this, progress. Gems have been granted legal equality, the vitriolic godgangs that posed such a threat have more or less been effectively neutered, and public perceptions of gems among norm society have begun to turn around, from being strange and unknown, or untrustworthy, to being wells of untapped potential – and even, in some cases, overnight celebrity success stories. Gems are stepping out into a much more positive light now that they’re legally no longer simply property, classed as less than human and generally viewed the same way. Of course not everyone’s mind simply changes overnight, but generally speaking, enough time has passed that a refreshingly different outlook has begun setting the stage for What Comes Next.

The gemtechs, no longer able to own, control or even create gems with the kind of free rein that they had before, have had to adapt or die out – and a lot of them would seem to be in trouble on just that score. Bel’Natur, on the other hand, seems to have done pretty well at avoiding washout status. With Zavcka Klist now running the show, their goals and areas of focus have undergone a radical shift. Even Zavcka herself seems to have become a changed woman after the events at Newhope Tower, and everything that led to it.

Or has she?

One person who doesn’t seem to be buying it is London’s newest most sought-after ‘celebrity’ gem, Aryel Morningstar. With the revelation of her unique gem capabilities came an unavoidable level of recognition, and while she generally appears to be avoiding the spotlight, she’s no longer hiding what she is. She’s still no fan of Zavcka’s, either, and in their bargaining over what Zavcka asks of her (for a given value of ‘ask’…) we’re given a pretty clear picture of the brittle, suspicious and at times reluctant (to put it mildly) nature of their dealings with one another. Zavcka doesn’t like Aryel, and Aryel most certainly doesn’t trust Zavcka. The reasons why, though, go a long way further back than Newhope Tower…

Yes, there is history between them. The extent of it, however, is perhaps less important than what it’s leading to, and here is where Zavcka becomes the intriguing and unnerving focus. She is at the heart of everything that’s going on, but what left me mindblown and pondering this story long after I should have gone to sleep is what’s driving her to do all the things she’s done, as well as what she’s doing. She’s cold, calculating, clearly ruthless and at times outright despicable – but she isn’t entirely unsympathetic. When the truth emerges and her motivations are clearer, I couldn’t help stepping back just a little and thinking, “well, okay, maybe…”.

Damn it.

Interspersed with the chapters in this book are flashback scenes, giving important glances into the past for both Zavcka and Aryel. What is discovered about them, and the reasons for what they do and who they are now, make this story, and their eventual – inevitable – final showdown an amazingly gripping one. It isn’t, however, confined to only their stories, or their roles in the events that make it. Saulter broadens her scope to include a vital handful of other characters, without whom this would only be half the book that it is – in a few senses.

From Herran, the autistic gem savant who understands binary code like no one else (and who is vital to what Zavcka is after), to Rhys and Callan, caught up in a touching romance even while Rhys’s own genetic origins threaten both their safety and Rhys’s life. Then there are Sharon and Mikal, providing us with a focus on gem-norm relationships and how such things are viewed in society, even with the protection that their legality affords them. Beyond just being a story of two sides still being at odds, this is a panoramic view of the street-level effects upon everyone in the middle – literally. Saulter splices together the grand, perhaps dangerous, broader views of those like Aryel and Zavcka with those under their care and their command, and turns what’s already a deeply fascinating, wonderfully tense mystery into a deeply affecting drama. She drip-feeds us the facts through glimpses at undeniably sympathetic characters, and the result is a wonderfully fresh, engaging and, in all the right places and times, both beautifully written and potentially troubling vision of what our own world could possibly end up looking like. Because while this story is about tech we don’t have (yet), the moral of it is about what it does to us – what we allow it to turn us into. And it’s not all pretty. Not by a long shot.

I’ve said that Rewriting The Script is about focusing on authors who offer something fresh and new in SF/F, and if Stephanie Saulter doesn’t count as one of those – indeed, perhaps as one of the brightest and best – then I don’t know who does. This is another five-star effort from a writer that you absolutely do not want to allow to fly under the radar – and for a second-book outing, that’s pretty remarkable all by itself.

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