Weaving together cyberpunk and magic, Wayne Santos’ debut novel The Chimera Code certainly doesn’t lack for ambition. Can these seemingly disparate worlds come together though? This fair and unbiased review was conducted in exchange for a free electronic copy of the book.
There’s a lot of punk around these days. Between cyberpunk, steampunk, ecopunk, dieselpunk and myriad others, it sometimes seems that fans won’t be satisfied until every novel has its own specific genre. I’m being flippant of course, and it must be said that I quite like knowing what genre a book has been placed into (even if it’s so I can disagree with the decision). And all these punk genres do mean it’s fairly easy from a cursory glance to know where The Chimera Code sits. Cyberpunk, right? Or is it… something else? Could we have another punk sub-genre on our hands here? If we do, I’m calling dibs on naming it. Magepunk? Spellpunk? Witchpunk? You see the direction I’m going in here. The Chimera Code has everything you might know and love about cyberpunk – faceless corporations, virtual reality, artificial intelligences knocking about the place, plucky misfit hackers – and mixes it with a healthy dose of magic to produce something highly entertaining.
The magical side of things here is really serving the purpose of facilitating massive action sequences, doing away with the fallibility of humdrum reality. The laws of physics and the like are not allowed to get in the way of the fun, resulting in some enormous, summer blockbuster style set pieces. They’re the sort of scenes that would perhaps feature in VR in other, similar works, but thanks to the suspension of the natural order that magic allows can take place in the physical world. Much of the riotous and well-choreographed action is centred around spell slinging, sword swinging combat mage Cloke. She’s half Irish, half Filipino, all badass, recruited at a young age to serve in a Chimera unit (so named because they combine conventional arms, digital warfare and combat magic). Along with Marcus, a combat cyborg, and Darma, a prodigious hacker – or “console jockey” – Cloke has toppled governments, rubbed shoulders with royals and more besides. The relationships between Cloke and her handler Victor, and between Cloke and her trusty allies are nuanced and believable, with dialogue feeling as slick and cool as the team themselves. The squad really comes across as tight knit, with in jokes and quips aplenty, many of which go right over newcomer Zee’s head and serve to remind us of hir newbie status frequently.
Zee hirself is a particularly interesting character. Their mysterious origin story of being grown in a lab and designed to be genderless is intriguing in itself, but the effect this has on hir psychology and general outlook on life informs hir every action. The trauma of Zee’s past is ever present, with any mention of the man who designed hir and the other “specimens” opening up old wounds. The discussion around what Zee’s preferred pronouns are also comes up more than once in the opening few chapters, and whilst this might feel slightly repetitive, it serves the purpose of showing how open-minded and accepting the rest of the team is, making it an understandably necessary discussion. There was the odd occasion where I stumbled slightly over some of the sentences, as I was reading Zee’s preferred pronoun of xie as a homonym of their name, so it felt a little like the characters were saying the same word – Zee and xie – lots of times within a few sentences. That could just be my own mistake though – the intention might be for it to be pronounced differently to the way I read it.
Now, onto the hacking, where we’re in Zee and Darma’s domain. When you’ve got a character like Cloke who can hurl fireballs and lightning, it might seem like these sequences will struggle to stack up in the excitement stakes. Happily, this isn’t a problem. Early on, a variation of the “if you die in the matrix, you die in real life” card is played, making everything Zee and mentor Darma do feel dangerous as well as significant, whilst the hacking on display carries with it a level of cool akin to that seen in Neuromancer. I’ll admit, some of the terms flew over my head a little bit (I’m somewhat ironically – and unfairly, I would argue – seen as something of a technophobe by friends, despite my sci-fi junkiedom) but the same could be said for some of Gibson’s revered cyberpunk originator. Much of the hacking action takes place in the virtual world, making for an interesting mix of settings; we even get a hellscape (and I do love a good hellscape).
Some readers might demand more answers than Santos gives here, such as what caused magic to come into the world, why Cloke is so incredibly skilled at manipulating it and so on. These questions did occur to me during my time with the novel, but they didn’t really bother me enough that they impacted on my enjoyment. If you’re the sort of person who likes everything to be explained, this might be more of a sticking point, but personally I was happy to just enjoy the ride. Whether or not these questions will be answered in subsequent books remains to be seen, but there are plenty of threads for Santos to pick up at a later date, which is encouraging. There’s also a lot of depth here anyway, much more than you might perhaps expect – a rather literal “ghost in the machine” moment early on is surprisingly affecting, bringing up existential questions on what it means to be human, whilst Zee struggles to come to terms with hir past and open up to others.
The Chimera Code has memorable, exciting action sequences that build to an absolutely massive climax, explorations of humanity and personal identity, and likeable characters. It successfully melds spell slinging, cyber warfare and run-and-gun fun, with just enough breathing room in between them to get to know those perpetrating all three. It’s fun, slick and cool – what more could you want?
The Chimera Code is published by Solaris, and is out in eBook today! Head here to pick up your copy. Alternatively, you can pre-order a paperback copy here, ready for when it releases later this year.