REVIEW: The Diabolic by S.J. Kincaid

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4.5/5 stars

I’m not sure how I feel about this turning into a trilogy. I liked it as a standalone–it was refreshing to read a YA science-fiction with a conclusion that actually felt like a conclusion, instead of just clickbait for the next in the series. But anyways, on to the novel itself. The best description that comes to mind for The Diabolic is that it’s what Red Queen tried and failed to be. Of late, a lot of YA authors have been experiencing with “dark” elements à la Game of Thrones, and Kincaid’s is the first of these I’ve read that I feel like has really done it successfully. Her distant future dystopia, blending elements of sci-fi and fantasy, is genuinely believable. So that gets a lot of points from me, because I have a hard time enjoying contrived “edgy” realpolitik. (I’m looking at you, A Court of Wings and Ruin.)

According to the jacket of my hardcover, The Bookseller describes The Diabolic as “Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games.” GoT I can see, although in recent months everything’s being likened to Thrones now that it’s the biggest cultural phenomenon around. THG not so much. The Diabolic has more detailed politics, better world-building, and a far more compelling sisterly relationship. It reminds me of The Valiant, although the scheming in The Diabolic is definitely way more complex and gets as close to GoT/ASOIAF levels as a 400-page novel can.

Let’s talk about Nemesis. She’s absolutely ruthless. You’d expect her to be, seeing as she was bred and raised specifically to be a killing machine, but it’s still jarring to see it for the first time. Within the first five pages, she slaughters three people in cold blood, and the body count doesn’t give up for the rest of the book. And what The Diabolic does so well and many YA novels do not is that it makes you feel the weight of these deaths. They are never trivialised–not the death of “evil henchmen” types, not the death of the innocent whose neck Nemesis snaps to protect a secret, not the death of the first girl she was electrocuted over and over into finally beating to death. Nemesis believes her entire life that she is incapable of feeling true emotion besides her programmed love for her master, that she has no soul. Of course she eventually comes to realise that she has more than she knew–which in itself is nothing unusual trope-wise, but what’s unusual is the beautiful way Kincaid tells her story.

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Now about Tyrus. I’ll freely admit it, this lad is the best troll I’ve seen in the past month, which is really something considering how much time I spend on the Internet. Yes, I mean that kind of troll. Minor spoiler: He’s as perfect an embodiment as I’ll ever see of the standard Obfuscating Insanity trope, and he plays the role damn well. Ken M would be proud. I certainly had my share of laughs. He’s a bit of an Olenna Redwyne. It was also downright refreshing to have a romance where the parties aren’t silly besotted with each other. They start out totally willing to manipulate each other to their personal ends and continue remaining pragmatic to the end, knowing that they can’t completely trust each other. It’s a match made in a Deadly Decadent Court, and it reads like one. That Nemesis and Tyrus weren’t made for each other–that they had to choose to make it work, that they had to fight to make it work, made their relationship so much more compelling. Because like real romance theirs is messy and complicated and doesn’t feel right all the time, but they fight through it for each other anyways. I’m proud of them.

The supporting characters all serve their roles. We have the Evil Matriarch in Cygna, the Alpha Bitch in Elantra Pasus (a better Evangeline Samos, anyone?), the Primrose Everdeen-like All-Loving Hero in Donia, The Emperor in Randevald, and so on. They didn’t feel derivative or predictable. Every character had his or her own motives, which is what makes the game fun, isn’t it? Deadly. But fun.

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