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Binary by Stephanie Saulter


Zavcka Klist has reinvented herself: no longer the ruthless gemtech enforcer determined to keep the gems they created enslaved, she’s now all about transparency and sharing the fruits of Bel’Natur’s research to help gems and norms alike.

Neither Aryel Morningstar nor Dr Eli Walker are convinced that Klist or Bel’Natur can have changed so dramatically, but the gems have problems that only a gemtech can solve. In exchange for their help, digital savant Herran agrees to work on Klist’s latest project: reviving the science that drove mankind to the brink of extinction.

Then confiscated genestock disappears from a secure government facility, and the more DI Varsi investigates, the closer she comes to the dark heart of Bel’Natur and what Zavcka Klist is really after – not to mention the secrets of Aryel Morningstar’s own past…
When Gemsigns, the first ®Evolution novel, first came to my attention, it was via Cheryl Morgan’s excellent review; and, when I turned to Binary just after it came out, I was expecting something very similar to what I had gotten in that book. I wasn’t entirely wrong… but it’s not the whole story, either!

Gemsigns left a lot of plotlines hanging for its sequel, a lot of unresolved events and mysteries at its close not tied up. Binary may find one of its greatest strengths in that openness; while tying up all the plot threads it isn’t a closed ending – evil hasn’t been exposed and defeated to leave good ruling the world in either a utopia or a status quo ante bellum, but rather evil has been exposed and now good needs to work out… what next? It’s that interesting openness that really allows the closure provided by Saulter in this concluding novel to really work; Binary, in a scant four hundred pages, goes both forward from and backward “against” Gemsigns, ably colouring in the backstory of various characters, primarily the mysterious Aryel Morningstar and Zackva Klist. The use of italics for “flashback” sections is a little jarring, but the sections themselves work and are fantastically integrated into the novel.

The big problem with the plot is how much the novel is trying to do. In four hundred pages, Saulter necessarily has to sacrifice some plots in order to make Binary a manageable novel; Gwen, especially, gets short shrift and it’s obvious that there’s a lot going on here that we don’t see, whilst seeing enough to make the reader really want to know the rest (perhaps a short story here, Stephanie?). That both serves to remind the reader that there are things happening offscreen, but also makes the novel feel somehow incomplete in its choice to ignore some of these storylines.

Binary doesn’t add in any new characters as compared to Gemsigns, so if you’ve read that (which isn’t quite necessary) you’ll already have met all the characters Saulter brings to the table; but here, the feel of those characters is better fleshed out, with Herran especially getting more room for focus and more room to breathe. Similarly, as Saulter develops the relationship between Rhys and Carran, we see an interesting, sympathetic portrayal of a gay relationship without either character becoming all about their homosexuality (although Carran threatens to fall into that pit a lot, and only manages to balance on its edge). If there’s a criticism to be had of character, it’s that an awful lot of them are essentially static; Herran and Klist are the only two who really develop as individuals or members of a group, the rest remaining at the end of the book basically the same as they were at the start.

I’m also going to say a few words about the title, here. Whilst Gemsigns was pretty much purely descriptive, and while Saulter has told me in conversation that Binary was chosen only to refer to computer code (which forms the centre of the main plot), she’s been really pleased with the different interpretations of it; given the way the gems and society interact, the ideas of postbinary gender and sexuality sprang immediately to mind, and for others, different things have become most prominent in connection with it. Not, perhaps, as evocative as The Steles of the Sky, Binary opens itself up as a title and a novel to endless parallels and implications.

All in all, this is an interesting corporate/political science fiction thriller; Binary lets Saulter showcase both fascinating ideas and good writing, but it does skimp on some characters in a way this reader at least found disappointing. A thought-provoking book worth your time.

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