A one-eyed woman stands knee-deep in water, heavily armed and ready for troubleRhye is a cyborg, a digital daughter of circuits and chips embedded in a human body wired for violence. She likes killing and she’s bloody good at it. But when she and her partner Rack are hired by the mob to break into a security system Rack designed, she may have met her match.

Let me get one thing straight: I don’t plan to read all the award nominees out there. I’m not into dinosaur porn (sorry Chuck) or troll baiting, so the Hugos hold limited interest for me. However, there’s plenty of other awards out there, and I’ll be working my way through whatever stories I can lay my hands on.

I’m starting with multi-award nominee And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead by Brooke Bolander. This one has such broad appeal it even made the Hugo shortlist, and with a title like that I knew I wanted to read it as soon as I heard about it. Add in the artwork and I am HERE for this. Let’s kick some ass.

The story opens with Rhye watching her partner get shot in the head; it’s high-octane, rage-fuelled cyberpunk from here on in.

Rack is the genius; Rhye is the hard case. The world-building is sparse, but grimdark (unless you consider cyberpunk a libertarian dream rather than a liberal nightmare) and her attitude and expectation is hammered home in every stray thought. We’re in a future of human expansion across the solar system, and cyborgs are just sentient tools: weapons of war, toys for blood sports, a synthetic Pinocchio for a mob boss without sons.

Rhye doesn’t care. She has been schooled to violence since she was taken off the streets as a child, abused and trained and spat back out the other side to make her own way. She gets her body from a meat grinder, and thinks of humans as flesh sacks. Nothing is real. Nothing has value. She likes pain because it lets her feel something.

Unexpectedly, so does Rack’s death.

The mobster is intent on sending her into the system to extract his son’s consciousness, but there’s a chance she’d have gone in anyway (once she was done killing them). And thankfully for us, she’s got an implant in her head that translates software into metaphor, giving us a paper thin excuse to experience her journey into the system in real world terms.

Or in other words, she gets to jack into the Matrix to complete the mission and rescue her partner.

It’s all very familiar and easy to dismiss – I got to the end wondering why this has been nominated for so many awards, because surely we’ve seen this all before. It’s taken a few days of examining that as it rattled around in my skull to start to put together a response. Ultimately, I can’t talk about this without spoilers, but I’ll mask them for those who want to read it unspoilt.

So, let’s start with the thing that bothered me: the world-building is Swiss cheese. Given cyborgs are created, not born, what is 12-year-old Rhye doing on the streets in the first place? And after the expense and effort of training her, why is she released from the army at 25? If she has no rights – and it certainly comes across that way – why not just upgrade or replace her body parts if she’s showing signs of wear and tear? The world-building isn’t sketched or hand-waved so much as indicated with an ominous nod towards the shadows before the story zooms on. Given we spend most of it in a virtual environment, arguably it doesn’t really matter.

Because once we get into virtual reality, we’re inside Rhye’s head with no distractions. The heart of the story – Rhye in combat with a security system modelled on her – is excellent, both for its cyberpunk creds and the unfamiliar soul-searching it provokes in her. Rhye goes into the land of the dead (it was only afterwards that I considered how fully Bolander plays with Greek myth) and must confront herself – literally and metaphorically – in order to rescue her lover.

This personal dimension is a great part of what lends an otherwise flimsy – and exceedingly sweary – story weight. The other part, for me, is the spin on gender. Rhye is presented as female: she’s in a female body, she thinks of herself as female, but her behaviour from the top down is traditionally male-coded. And hey, I’m always up for a bit of subversion of gender roles.

So Rhye is the muscle-bound killing machine plunged out of her depth to rescue a lover. She’s aggressive, impetuous, shoot first and ask questions later, turning the air blue as she goes. She’s not a cool and collected Trinity (or even Molly Millions) who is a genius hacker as well as a kick-ass heroine; she’s somebody else’s nightmare. She’ll be doing the rescuing, thanks, and ripping heads off as she goes.

Rack, by contrast, is the gentle carer who takes her in when she’s wounded and then offers her a place to live and a safe environment without questions or boundaries. Rack is the one she beats when she’s drunk, although she eventually gives up death matches for him (in an understated way that he could never really assume it was for him). Rhye doesn’t do emotion, or affection. She just hasn’t left him.

But she’s a cyborg. So while I’m busy thinking ‘cool, gender-flip’, there’s a separate consideration: isn’t her gender just a choice made by her makers? Is gender even a relevant concept for what is essentially flesh-draped AI?

The story doesn’t explicitly ask or answer these questions, but I think it comes down on the side of gender being as artificial a construct as the bodies they’re housed in, which I can get behind. But I’ll admit to being a little disappointed that (SPOILER, mouse over to read) our super hard-boiled heroine ends up in a male body.

Regardless – any story that provokes thought is a good story, as is one that works on several levels (because you can just read this as a piece of old-school cyberpunk and leave it at that). Would it be my choice for an award? Probably not, because it’s got some very stiff competition. But it’s fun, in a violent, nihilistic way.

Last thought: this is strictly a story for people who appreciate epic swearing. Seriously. If you don’t enjoy a good cuss and can’t tolerate a bad one, this is not for you. Rhye is incapable of a thought that doesn’t involve obscenities. The swearing is gratuitous, over the top and occasionally glorious – and even I found it wearing.

 

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And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead can be read online at Lightspeed.

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