False Hearts, by Laura Lam

Title: False Hearts
Author: Laura Lam
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 16th June 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

False-Hearts-UK-Cover (2)False Hearts, by Laura Lam, is an exciting sci-fi thriller that explores the ideas of brain-hacking, lucid dreaming and the deep, dark world of organised crime and corruption in a city that is perfect on the outside. Where flesh parlours are a five-minute ticket to a new appearance and neural implants allow for quick downloading of information directly to the brain, muscular implants regulate body mass and size, and everything from synthetic, hangover free alcohol to fully-prepared meals can be ordered from a replicator in your kitchen, San Francisco seems to be the perfect city, full of perfect people.

Since the introduction of Zeal lounges, allowing the user to plug directly into their own vast fantasies and participate as they play out, the crime rate has plummeted and the city has become a peaceful haven of happy people with sculpted smiles.

But not everyone gets the same kick out of Zeal; for some, the dreaming process of acting out hidden fantasies doesn’t produce the same effect. For formerly conjoined twins, Taema and Tila, raised outside of society in a secluded cult, Zeal does nothing. Maybe it’s because they were raised so differently, taught the word of Mana-Ma, the conduit for the Good Book and God’s word. But maybe it’s the fact that they can already both lucid dream thanks to their training in the cult of Mana’s Hearth and the fact that their brains simply work differently, lowering the pleasure of Zeal for both of them.

However, this fact makes Taema and Tila somewhat unique and very useful for those seeking to use Zeal for a darker purpose. Everyone knows about the Zealots; those who plug into Zeal and live out such dark fantasies that they are driven away from the monitored feeds in the legal, safe Zeal lounges and into the shady, grimy parlours of the city’s underbelly. Addicted to Zeal, unable to feel a connection with life outside their fantasies, they plug in for hours and hours at a time, eventually wasting away, their lives crumbling around them as they act out their darker sides away from the prying eyes of the rest of the city.

Taema has always been the sensible twin, the reserved twin. An engineer with a good job and bright future, she plays by all the rules. That is, until her sister comes home covered in blood, accused of a murder Taema knows her sister can’t possibly be capable of.

Or could she? The deeper Taema delves into her sister’s life, the more she realises that, since they left Mana’s Hearth, she barely knows her sister anymore. So many secrets and lies hang between them now and Taema is left in the dark. With her sister’s trial pending and the first murder in the city in decades being covered up, Taema is given a choice: become Tila and find out the truth or leave her sister to die.

Soon she finds herself undercover and in deep water as she tries to step into her sister’s very different shoes. With a partner to help her learn the ropes of being undercover, Taema brainloads new info every day, learning everything from the hierarchy of the city’s dark and dangerous mafia to martial combat techniques. As she slips further down the rabbit hole, losing herself more with each day spent pretending to be Tila, she discovers a deeper, darker truth at the heart of it all.

Whatever her sister was caught up in, it goes far further than she could ever have imagined, and in the end, it might feel as though they never really escaped the Hearth after all.

This book was thrilling in every sense of the word; exciting and vibrant and bursting with what felt like a genuine and accurate possible aesthetic of a future San Francisco. So many earthbound science fiction narratives can read far too much like our very own here and now, rendering the setting somewhat redundant as a supposed science fiction. False Hearts does not suffer from this at all, instead depicting a very visible future with all the usual instalments of such a setting, with thoughtful details that make a world feel less like a structure confined to the page, and more a living, real thing. Essentially the world that Lam creates in lieu of our own feels possible, as if we’re glimpsing the future instead of reading about an entirely fictional world. This, for me, is something of an essential part of a good futuristic earth.

False Hearts is a superbly-written and gripping thriller that plays out with almost startling movie-like clarity. It would translate to film like a dream come true. As is to be expected from Lam, the world she presents is not only racially diverse, but also sexually. Lo and behold and let the angels sing for a bisexual main character who neither coyly dances around the subject nor is revealed as not heterosexual outside of the actual story and by the author. No Dumbledore treatment here. Taema is bi and definitely interested in the possibility of dating women when the suggestion is presented. We even have a disabled boy. Heck, Taema and Tila themselves are formerly conjoined twins. And, as I’ve also come to expect from Lam, their status as such is not a part of the plot. It simply is. Just as Micah’s intersex biology was not a part of her Dark Circus series; it simply was just how Micah was.

It’s ludicrously refreshing to have an author remember that bisexuality, race and disability are a thing. As said, I’d expect nothing less with Lam. She’s a bright star in a sky dotted with samey science fiction that tries too hard to be edgy, potentially using both race and LGBT characters more as set-dressing than as characters who feature very prominently in the story.

I knew about False Hearts long before I read it, dating back to a handful of DMs where we both lamented the fact that her publisher (then, Strange Chemistry) would not be picking up the third Micah Grey book. She’d recently finished a draft of what became False Hearts, which her agent loved and we both crossed our fingers hoping it would be a breakout novel for her (and that her backlist would be picked up as well).

These things happened, and now, after years of anticipation, waiting whilst “Bonkers Book” was finished and edited and eventually sold, I got to read the novel the pitch of which made me giddy with excitement.

I wasn’t disappointed. False Hearts is a stunningly clever thriller that is sure to keep you reading well into the night. I can’t reiterate how much I love this book. Lam is a stellar author and with False Hearts she has stepped up her game. I can’t imagine how I’ll possibly wait patiently for the second book. I miss Taema already.

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