Review: Nekropolis by Maureen F. McHugh

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Form: pdf e-book
Genre: sci-fi/dystopia/paranormal romance

Target audience: adults

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Fleeing an empty future in the Nekropolis, twenty-one-year-old Hariba has agreed to undergo “jessing,” the technobiological process that will render her subservient to whomever has purchased her services. Indentured in the house of a wealthy merchant as a female manager, she encounters many wondrous things. Yet nothing there is as remarkable and disturbing to her as the “harni,” Akhmim. A perfect replica of a man, this intelligent, machine-bred creature unsettles Hariba with its beauty, its naive, inappropriate tenderness . . . and with prying, unanswerable questions, like “Why are you sad?” Slowly, revulsion metamorphoses into acceptance, and then into something much more. But these outlaw emotions defy the strict edicts of God and Man — feelings that must never be explored, since no master would tolerate them. And the “jessed” who defy their master’s will  risk sickness, pain, imprisonment . . . and perhaps also death. Will Hariba manage to escape her prison?

What I liked:
Firstly let me tell you that I fully appreciated the original setting of this novel – how many books you’ve read take place in Morocco and combine the local culture with sci-fi elements? The concept of a chemically indentured woman in an ultraconservative future version of an Arab country, who, knowing fully well it is forbidden, falls in love with an artificially made ‘harni’ man, is intriguing.
Hariba met the humanoid flesh-and-blood construct (genetically engineered chimera, whatever you want to call it, with 98% of human DNA and some special additions) and ends up asking herself, “How we can escape and be happy?” What’s better McHugh refuses easy answers and simple characterizations, showing her characters’ ambivalent relationships with freedom, and the ways that they willingly give it up  for love and security.

McHugh’s prose was solid and the pacing was fantastic – the story never once dragged unnecessarily or shot ahead; it was also very engaging, I had to finish it no matter what.  It’s told in alternating first-person narration chapters, first by the main heroine, then by her harni not-quite-lover, then her mother, then her best friend, and then finally one last bit we know once again from the perspective of Hariba. I very much enjoyed the immediacy of the first person narration from three very different women within the same society (the jessed domestic worker without any future, the shamed widow, the ‘successful’ wife and mother), and I enjoyed seeing how their relationships played out, with all the resentments and pettiness and deep, unswerving loyalty, even over their anger and disgust. Still the best chapter in my humble opinion belongs to Akhmim – the best because it showed all the weirdness of him being a ‘construct’, a being nobody truly understands or wants to understand, not even his mistress or beloved Hariba. It made me question many things taken for granted while reading other chapters.

Finally let me say that I was satisfied with the ending – it felt very true. A new life, new opportunities, new choices – and everything going to shit anyway. I would have been disappointed if it all turned out rosy and sweet, but McHugh knows better. Even the way it all slowly disintegrated was appropriate; there was no explosion, no drama, just a gradual dissolution and detachment. I just wish the author also showed us Akhmim’s assessment of the whole situation, especially the changes he’d undergone – I kind of missed his narration.

What I didn’t like:
I admit I would want more sci-fi elements in this one. The chapter narrated by Akhmim was far too short and not especially revealing when it comes to the whole process of creating a ‘harni’. I did want to know more and I wasn’t given an opportunity to find out.

Finally the title…my main carping is that it doesn’t reflect the content well. No, it is not a book about living in a cemetery. Most of it doesn’t even take place in a cemetery or necropolis of any kind. Personally I found it a bit misleading. Not to mention the fact that the cover art is rather bland.

Final verdict:

One of more original sci-fi flavoured novels I’ve read this year. What a pity it wasn’t continued by the author – with so many questions unanswered fully I really wouldn’t say ‘no’ to a second or even a third part.

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4 Responses to Review: Nekropolis by Maureen F. McHugh

  1. So this isn't a romance?

  2. Blodeuedd says:

    I do not like unanswered questions -_-

  3. It includes a romantic story arc but strictly speaking no, it is not.

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