When the real world is emptied of all that you love, how can you keep yourself from dependence on the virtual?
Animal activist and punk rock star Larissa Kenders lives in a dystopian world where the real and the virtual intermingle. After the disappearance of her soulmate, Andrew, Kenders finds solace by escaping to Nirvana, a virtual world controlled by Hexagon. In Nirvana, anyone’s deepest desires may be realized – even visits with Andrew.
Although Kenders knows that this version of Andrew is virtual, when he asks for her assistance revealing Hexagon’s dark secret, she cannot help but comply. Soon after, Kenders and her closest allies find themselves in a battle with Hexagon, the very institution they have been taught to trust. After uncovering much more than she expected, Kenders’ biggest challenge is determining what is real – and what is virtual.
Thank you to the publisher, author, and the team at Digiwriting for providing an updated version of the book. My review of the ARC version can be found here.
In my review for the ARC version of Nirvana, I expressed disappointment. I believed Nirvana to be capable of greatness with its fascinating themes and ideas, and yet it missed its mark. The updated version of Nirvana, however, is a completely different book. It has more direction, more clarity, a sense of purpose, and a more distinct narrative voice. For this review, I will be drawing from the ARC version a lot as a basis of my evidence and judgments.
Nirvana is a post-apocalyptic eco-science-fiction with a hint of dystopia. It is set in a world at the brink of life. Bees have become extinct causing the near-decimation of the ecosystem. What follows is an imagining of a world where wildlife and plants are scarce. The remnants of humanity have been relegated to societies subject to extreme forms of neoliberalism with a Nineteen-Eighty Four-esque package complete with surveillance, fear politics, and privatized research. With Hexagon, the corporation whose power and avarice has no limit, the future is bleak, akin to living in a small, steel bowl. To live in such a world would be a nightmare.
In addition to its darker themes, Nirvana also explores a concept that is really lacking in fiction: virtual reality. Not only would virtual reality be really cool, its existence and presence in society would entail a plethora of social and psychological consequences. Who, or what entity, dictates access to virtual reality? Who owns the space of virtual reality? One idea often explored, and is explored in Nirvana, is discerning what is reality and what is virtual, and asking the very difficult but simple question: What is reality? In Nirvana, the eponymous virtual reality is a haven for humankind – it is a realm of memories for people to see the world pre-extinction, a place for people to live their darkest fantasies or desires, or, for Kenders, a way to relive her glory days as a punk artist – and then some.
Kenders, the protagonist, has a stronger narrative in the updated version. Her voice and personality are evident in the narrative, and we understand more about her with the casual mentions of her past and the activism that she did. I was also pleased that there were more female characters; the addition of Lexie and Paloma were refreshing, as opposed to the initial version’s male-dominated story. The romance was also retained, though its emphasis is diminished in favour of more action. Though there is more context concerning Kenders and Andrew’s relationship, I didn’t feel the depth of Kenders’s affection for her fiancee has deeply and strongly as the ARC. In the ARC version, I felt compelled by Kenders’s grief, but more by her doubt. Whilst I was rather fond of Andrew and Kenders, and the dynamic of their relationship, I found myself less interested in the romance, but more interested in the friendships. Their romance felt hollow, contrived. And yet, there is an instance towards the end of the book that suggests that it may be intentional – but I will leave this for readers to discern.
My only qualm with Kenders’s characterization – which existed in the ARC version but was insignificant against its other, bigger flaws – is the seemingly pointless Rape as Backstory, which did not do much to contribute to the story at hand. Sure, Kenders is more than the trope, but if you substituted that past with another traumatic event, there would not be a discernible difference.
Despite its improvement, Nirvana still feels like it is lacking. It isn’t a bad book at all, but it isn’t great too. I still stand by my initial sentiment: this book still has a lot of unlocked potential. Though the narrative forsakes its wider themes for better story-telling, some of book’s thematic depth – which I enjoyed – was compromised. Perhaps this book suffers from that underdeveloped first book syndrome – there is certainly a lot of context, but the narrative still feels like it lacks cohesion. Furthermore, without divulging into the details, the ending was so abrupt, and contrary the developments of the plot and characters that it seemed more like an attempt to hook the reader into reading the sequel rather than good storytelling. It felt cheap and haphazard against the natural development of the story.
And whilst I do think that the final version is better than the ARC, the updated version generally does everything better — except for being bold. What I loved about the ARC of Nirvana, and what made me believe in its potential to be great, was that it was a book that took bold risks. Ideological ramblings, conspirators discussing their rhetoric and plans, heavy-handed questions that weren’t answered but left omnipresently hanging – I liked those aspects because you do not often see this in YA fiction. Alas, though the final version Nirvana is a significant improvement, it is safe. Too safe. It doesn’t challenge the reader or cause any quakes in a genre that is, right now, incredibly exciting and is in need of innovative, creative stories.
As the themes and ideas explored in the book are of a rare kind, Nirvana is a worthwhile read. It is a light and easy introduction to ideas of virtual reality and post-apocalyptic science-fiction, and it has some insightful and engaging ideas that are thought-provoking. Despite my criticisms, there is still a lot of room for development – in characters, story, and themes. Still, I may continue with the series, purely because I am curious as to what direction Stewart will take Nirvana next.
Book Name: Nirvana
Book Series: Nirvana Series #1
Author: J.R. Stewart
Publisher: Blue Moon Publishers