Review: Dissension by Stacey Berg

[The following review contains spoilers, read at your own risk.]

I picked this book up because at the time I wanted a change of pace from reading about straight people and their problems. This one was getting some good reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and while post-apocalyptic dystopian societies are a dime a dozen these days, there aren’t a ton with romance between characters who aren’t straight.

 

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After a cataclysmic event known as the Fall, the remnants of humanity cluster in the single remaining city under the protection of the Church, who cares for and reveres the Saint who provides the city with power. Echo Hunter 367 is a clone raised to be what the Church wants her to be: loyal, obedient, and lethal, but Echo harbours a secret sin:doubt. When the Church sends her on a mission to ferret out rebel leaders before civil war between the Church and the citizens destroys everything the Church has fought to preserve, she unexpectedly bonds with a doctor named Lia. Soon, however, Echo will be forced to choose between her duty to the Church and the woman she loves.

This book is probably the most okay book I’ve read all year. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great either. It has an interesting premise but the world failed to draw me in. The city didn’t feel like a living, breathing place. That probably seems like a weird thing to say about static words on the page, but I’ve definitely read books with settings and characters that feel real, this book’s setting felt more like it was the backdrop for a play. Maybe it’s the fact that the writing doesn’t get very descriptive. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we only experience the world through Hunter’s third person limited perspective, and Hunter, essentially someone who trains for years to protect the Church, is more focused on finding exits to rooms and assessing the threat level of anyone she encounters rather than, say, the colour of the curtains, things you would expect a soldier to notice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really make for compelling reading. There’s also a lot of repetition, somewhat justified because the Church has been Hunter’s only home for ages, but once you read about something reminding her “of the priests’ laboratories” for the fifth time you start wishing she would find a different point of comparison. The characters in general don’t really have a lot of depth to them, either. Lia is the sort of character who will throw herself into life-threatening situations if someone needs help. Loro is highly suspicious of Hunter and protective of Lia, the Patri is Echo’s boss and seems to be hiding something. There’s a bit more nuance towards the end but it can’t make up for the approximately three quarters of a book worth of flat characterization.

This book does what a lot of books like it do and Calls a Rabbit a Smeerp: bullets are “projectiles” and guns are “projectile weapons”, doctors are “meds”, “prints” are books. There’s nothing really wrong with this (regardless of what that bigot Orson Scott Card says} but somehow the use of the future speak almost seems to make the setting more generic for me, which is, I know, an odd thing to say. I guess the long and short of it is everything about this book feels generic to me.

Unfortunately, the book could have been just a generic sci fi dystopian work and I’d be okay with it, but unfortunately it had to feature a particularly problematic trope regarding the main relationship. First let me say that I actually liked how Lia and Hunter’s relationship was very understated, it definitely wasn’t instalove and they weren’t spending every moment of their time together obsessing over each other. It was almost a little too understated, I think, especially since the back cover makes a big deal out of it. However, where the book ultimately falls short in my eyes is the use of the tired old Bury Your Gays trope.

I wish I was kidding, but no, it couldn’t just be generic, it had to incorporate that trope, and you know, it’s annoying enough when straight people do it, but when we queer folks start doing it in our own stories, it feels like a betrayal. I can hear the objections right about now “but it fits with the tone of the story!” or “maybe she’ll write a sequel where it gets better!” but that doesn’t change the fact that the author decided to employ a particularly insidious trope in a book that was not great but was also not horrible, and I am disappoint, I am very disappoint. This is exacerbated by the fact that apart from two anonymous priests whom Echo catches making out at the beginning of the book and Lia and Echo themselves, there are no other overt queer characters.

In the end, I can’t really recommend Dissension. The world didn’t really grab me and by the end I just wanted to finish it and move on to other books. If you would like to read a neat sci fi tale with a diverse cast and a f/f relationship that is bittersweet but not tragic, I would recommend checking out The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie.

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