APEX (Nexus #3)
Philip K. Dick Award nominee 2016
Apex should have been the sort of book I love.
It’s cyberpunk-y, a political thriller, and a lot of the action takes place in settings outside of the usual, which is to say, in China and India. This is a lot of what I love, especially the cyberpunk. That’s my go-to sub-genre in science fiction, one I’ve read a lot in and written myself, and–more importantly–is hard to come by these days.
So I should have been all over this book.
Yet, I struggled to finish it.
I’m fairly certain that all of my issues come down to one, glaring problem: I didn’t read the other two preceding books.
This is one of the consistent problems I face as someone who is challenging themselves to read only books nominated for awards. It seems to me that sometimes awards are given not to individual books for their greatness on their own merit, but as a nod to the entire body of work by an author.1 This frustrates me, both as a reader and an author.
As a reader, the problems are obvious. If I chose not to try to hunt down and read all the work that came before, I face a huge gap/learning curve. Some things can be gleaned from context and sometimes it actually isn’t entirely important to understand every nuance of a given thing, but other times it matters a great deal.
One of the places it matters a lot is character. I have no idea if any of the characters in Apex appeared in previous books in the Nexus series, but it took me forever to figure out who was who–a problem exacerbated by a tendency, in the narrative, for someone to think of themselves (as you would) by their given name, but for other people, in dialogue, to use their surnames. I mean, I’m not stupid. I figured it out eventually, but it wasn’t the most conducive to the flow of the narrative for me to start each new chapter with “Okay, who is this now? Oh crap, is X, the same as Y?”
Also, I don’t know if this is a third book problem or a newish trend, but there was a noticeable and profound dearth of physical description.2 What this means for a reader like me, however, is that if I don’t remember all the characters’ names, I’m left with the situation/their behavior to define them. They are literally floating empty name plates in my head, with, maybe (unless it’s Leckie,) a gender attached.
As a writer myself, I understand why it might be considered less than ideal to dump a lot of information into a third book, particularly if it’s already 600 pages long, and it’s a concept or term that’s been gone over several times in previous books. So, I sympathize. However, at the same time, the consequence was that I felt very distant from the first hundred pages of this book.3
Once the action got rolling, I was able to enjoy the book more, but that confused and lost start was a real uphill struggle for me.
My only recommendation with this one is to suggest a reader start with Nexus, the first book of the trilogy.
I should note, that this was not my experience when I was a Philip K. Dick Award judge. Our jury very much considered, much like I do with these reviews, each book on its own. However, I can only speak for myself. Perhaps some of the other judges were more well-read than I, and couldn’t help but have an entire series coloring the experience of the book in front of them. We didn’t talk about that, though. I don’t remember any discussions of ‘have you read the previous book(s)?’ ↩
The reason I wonder if this is a trend is that I had the same problem in Ann Leckie’s books. ↩
Luckily, as I noted, there are over 500 more. ↩