Heir Ascendant by Matthew S. Cox

Heir Ascendant by Matthew S. CoxWiring a series of nuanced characters into a binary of polished privilege and clunky grunge, Cox builds cyberpunk that connects on an emotional and aesthetic level.

Society is divided between those rich enough to live in comfortable complexes, and those too poor to escape the ruins of World War III. Maya Oman, the daughter of a bioengineering magnate, is kidnapped by terrorists seeking a cure for the latest plague. With her captors already worried by rumours of android duplicates created to foil exactly this sort of scheme, the dismissal of their demands increases tensions within the group. Hoping to turn them against each other, Maya levers the cracks still wider; only to discover not being a combination of accessory and marketing ploy for one of the most powerful women in the world might be worse than having a mother who doesn’t love her.

The opening section of this novel expands Cox’s short story ‘Innocent Deception’.

With a world that spans from the ultra-rich living in AI-controlled luxury to the destitute squatting in ruins, hackers taking control of paramilitary police drones, cybernetically enhanced grunts with PTSD, and air that can kill, this book screams cyberpunk. However, although the characters live in a world cobbled together from the fragments of a disposable world, the tropes have substance as well as style.

While a thematic similarity between Cox’s Division Zero series where the protagonist struggles to provide a better life for an adopted child and this book where a child attempts to find a better life with an adopted parent make it likely fans of that series will find the same emotional resonance here, this book is not merely more of the same: as ever, Cox skilfully demonstrates that the tension is in the details.

Alongside the risks of trust and betrayal, Cox lays out very real physical dangers, both from the environment and from people whose interests are more visceral than attempting to ransoming Maya back to her mother. While the protagonist is a child, with cannibalism not the worst threat she faces, this is very much not a children’s book.

Maya is complex and sympathetic character. Born and raised with the best medical science can provide, and sealed away from the world with only educational software and the net for entertainment, her mental and physical abilities are plausibly better than a pre-teen. However, with her only experience of social interaction coming from advertising shoots, staged photo ops, and very occasional stilted lunches with her tyrannical mother, she displays both naïvety and paranoia.

The supporting cast are equally complex. Terrorists display both a compassion that lifts them above stereotype and a focus on their goals that produces brutality. People who hate the authorities for their oppression love their families enough to sell their neighbours out. And sadistic thugs of the worst sort display a nuanced concern for certain groups.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel greatly. I recommend it to readers seeking gritty dystopian sci-fi driven by complex characters.

I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.


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