Each of my teammates in the second annual Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2) have evaluated their initial allotment and have made their recommendations for the quarterfinals, which consist in our collective top eight of the 28 books in our team’s slush pile. Four of those eight quarterfinalists had been in my scouting allotment, so I personally had four new quarterfinalists to read. And with three books left to go, I moved on to Syn City: Reality Bytes by Lewis Knight.
Syn City: Reality Bytes is a cyberpunk novel that alternates between two perspectives: Specter is a virtual reality addict who funds his habit with his uncanny—and lucrative—ability to hijack the minds of synoids, while Enigma is a former rebel against the established order who has been forced into service tracking down criminals for the seemingly all-powerful Cyber Corp. When Enigma is tasked with bringing in Spector, it begins a game of cat-and-mouse in which both sides have everything to lose.
I’ll start by being upfront: I don’t often read cyberpunk, and if it weren’t for the competition, I never would’ve picked up a book with this description. And after a whirlwind of a first chapter that tried to lay out the world and introduce both main characters before closing with a chase scene, I was ready to put it down. But the benefit of our team’s structure is that I had two teammates who could tell me whether the book settles in after a shaky open. And it does.
Once the players are established, the story proceeds with a mix of present-day action to set the stakes and flashback to further develop the characters. And from that point forward, there’s really no letup. The present-day action keeps the tension high throughout, and the background work establishes compelling character motivation and a devastating portrait of VR addiction. And the lot of it is well-paced and easy to burn through in no time at all. It may not be in my wheelhouse, but I had a plenty good time with it.
Unfortunately, an overall entertaining story is bookended with segments that didn’t work so well. I’ve already criticized the first chapter, and I have my complaints about the last as well. It’s clear that this is meant to be a series-opener, so I don’t expect resolution of every plot line. There are perfectly reasonable intermediate climaxes that justify the time invested into a single book, even while setting up a sequel. And Syn City: Reality Bytes doesn’t totally shirk its duty here—there’s enough payoff to be worth the price of admission. But the book foreshadows a particular high-risk, high-stakes job so heavily that it builds an expectation of that job being the climax. Instead, it finishes on an earlier one and relegates the promised big finish to the sequel. It’s not that the ending it chooses instead is bad, it’s that it subverts expectations in a way that’s bound to be disappointing. It certainly provides fodder for a fun second book, but for those reading the first alone, it’s not entirely satisfying.
Overall, Syn City: Reality Bytes is a fast-paced, fun cyberpunk thriller. There’s a bit of a wobble at the outset and at the close, but it’s definitely still worth a look for fans of the subgenre.
Recommended if you like: pulpy cyberpunk thrillers.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published, No Ifs Ands Or Buts, and Mental Health. It also has an Anti-Hero and a BIPOC Author.
Overall rating: 12 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC Score: My personal score is 6/10. The official team score will be decided in concert with my teammates.