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Review: The Vitruvian Mask – BJ Sikes

The Vitruvian Mask

Genre: Sci-Fi, Steampunk, Alt History

LGBTQ+ Category: Bi, Gay, Non-Binary

Reviewer: Tony

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About The Book

1881: The electric lights of Paris have been extinguished.

The Naturalist revolution is over. Adelaide was on the losing side. Once the Royal Scientist Doctor for the now-dead cyborg monarchs of France, she’s now a fugitive, hiding from the new king’s Police Sécrète.

Pregnant and alone, she seeks refuge in a Parisian hospital but things have changed there too. What was once a cathedral of Science is now a bastion of ignorance and superstition.

The battlefield veterans whose Augmented prosthetics she once created are shunned by the new regime and come to the hospital for her help. But her nemesis, the father of her child, has returned to France and threatens to reveal her illegal activities to the authorities.

Can Adelaide repair her Augmented patients without losing her freedom … or her life?

The Review

The Vitruvian Mask is set in 1881, a year after an extreme regime change when one totalitarian state is replaced by another one. It’s book two in the series “The Roboticists of Versailles.” The Naturalist revolution was successful, and now all technology is outlawed, augmented humans / cyborgs are banned from court and are now pariahs, and scientists have been imprisoned or executed. Added to this, there’s a food shortage, but at least the watcher spheres have been destroyed and the robotic monarchs are dead. The citizens are free to do what they are told they are allowed to do.

Ex-Royal Scientist Doctor Adelaide Coumain has managed to survive and has rescued her automated dauphin, and still dreams of making France whole again. She is heavily pregnant and has little support from her companions. Being discrete is not really a skill any of them have developed, so their dreams are going to be difficult to realise.

Let’s be honest, The Vitruvian Mask is a bit of a misery fest while also being quite a great read. There are few if any smiles until the end. It is a sort of post-steampunk version of the French revolution where the new king, Henri V, takes control and puts the Naturalist agenda into practice, turning France back to a pre industrial state where Science is prohibited, doctors and nurses are dismissed or worse, and nuns with dirty hands pray over the sick. This is not to say that the regime they replaced was perfect, but at least people had a health service and bread on their tables.

Adelaide’s existence is not easy, even when she returns to Paris and finds work. There are plenty of complications, including the return to France of the artist Henri, the father of her child and a possible threat to her survival. I can’t say I warmed to any of the characters – they are all the product of their environments, brutal and lacking in empathy in general. Adelaide shows some compassion when faced with veterans with failing augmentations (legs) but otherwise is a quite cold (if complex) character.

This is a fascinating read that does not take the easy route. People are sufferin,g and the upper classes are still living in a bubble where everything is fine for them, so what does it matter about anyone else? There is a flicker hope by the end of the book – we’ll have to wait and see if there will be any silver lining to the rain clouds that hang over Paris.

The Reviewer

Tony is an Englishman living amongst the Welsh and the Other Folk in the mountains of Wales. He lives with his partner of thirty-six years, four dogs, two ponies, various birds, and his bees. He is a retired lecturer and a writer of no renown but that doesn’t stop him enjoying what he used to think of as ‘sensible’ fantasy and sf. He’s surprised to find that if the story is well written and has likeable characters undergoing the trails of life, i.e. falling in love, falling out of love, having a bit of nooky (but not all the time), fending off foes, aliens and monsters, etc., he’ll be happy as a sandperson who has just offloaded a wagon of sand at the going market price. As long as there’s a story, he’s in. He aims to write fair and honest reviews. If he finds he is not the target reader he’ll move on.

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