Cyberblade: The City of Five Skies is a strong showing from a first author, but I can’t shake the feeling that it needed a little longer in the oven. It has huge ideas and shows strong creative vision, but if anything sticks out as a flaw is that the book had too many thoughts going on at once to satisfactorily develop them. The premise takes us ten thousand years into the future, where mankind subsists in politically independent (to an extent) Enginestates; these massive city-structures rely off of a geothermal energy that can warp the biologies of those it encounters. The level of technology is cyberpunk, but the society’s basis is in classical Greece. Lex, member of an underclass of Empyrean (the book’s future allegory for the Roman Empire) refugees live beneath the scorn of their Graexian haven. She seeks to fight against the tyranny of the class system through a series of imaginative, slick, sometimes confusing action scenes featuring robots, mechs, futuretech, and superheroes.
Suffice it to say, there’s a lot going on in Cyberblade. Every piece of what William Z. Stone presents is interesting, and reasonably well thought out. But in the clash of so many concepts and the pace of the narrative, a lot of interesting potential gets left on the table. The setting, for instance, has some sparks of brilliance that end up being far too few. Mixing classical Greek aesthetics with Cyberpunk’s technology and grandeur can be incredible, like the priests of Zeus who battle with boxing gloves rippling with electric energies, or the ritualistic ostentation of how the leaders present themselves. Unfortunately, this aesthetic is far too inconsistent and underutilized. There are togas and theater masks, but also fishnet shirts and electric guitars and motorcycles. These elements contradict one another far more often than they complement one another. We receive only limited glimpses of how modern Enginestates were formed, as another prominent one is Tengoku, a Japanese inspired entity that seems to exist to justify the use of katana in the story. Books like the Diamond Age and Dune explained why their societies were mired in anachronism, but Cyberblade is happy to use it only as a justification for the novel’s aesthetics.
Lex, for instance, is far more than your average young adult protagonist. She has realistic faults, and seriously considers the weight of the violence she commits as a part of her rebellion. Her ascent into the heights of power is consistently met with new levels of depravity, which conveniently enough happen to also involve high-intensity robotic violence. She develops tremendously throughout the novel, but as it goes on Cyberblade has less time to devote to letting her or the audience process what is going on. Part of that may be intentional, due to the stress she suffers in the book, but that stalls out as the political situation becomes more complicated. New characters and factions make their introductions, new twists and turns erupt in front of you, and Lex loses some believability as she stops reacting to her surroundings.
At one point she undergoes a change. Due to the circumstances and nature of this change, I would consider it the most significant and challenging event of a person’s life, regardless of who they are, but especially given some things that we know about Lex. This is almost totally forgotten about after that. The book refers to it, but doesn’t want to explore the possibilities it presents. The book is pockmarked with characters, setting elements, technological ideas, and entire scenes that set my mind on fire with the intensity and intelligence with which they were conceived. But they all go by far too quickly. Usually it’s nice for a book to move at a brisk pace, building its setting and world with succinctness. I don’t think Cyberblade quite seals that deal.
The climax is a perfect encapsulation of why I want to like Cyberblade but ultimately find it a challenge. The ending is ambitious and imaginative, but too much so. It becomes this roiling miasma of factions and plot twist and action setpieces that it all blends together and fails to leave much of an impact. If you happen to glaze over a small section, something that becomes easier the more that the narrative loses itself in accelerating action, you could miss huge twists about the setting or characters. Major events go by largely unremarked upon because the novel has to move right on to the next setting-shattering event. It’s a shame, as the political underpinnings of the novel are actually interesting when you can stop to parse them out, and I only wish the book had spent more time developing its good ideas instead of bowling over them to continue to present more.
The quality of the moment to moment writing is far from consistently satisfying. Most of the characters seem to speak with the same voice, which feels too close to contemporary language than the cyberpunk greek future should. A lot of scene setting is skipped over, leaving you unclear of what Neo-Mars enginestate looks like or how its environments are shaped. This can bleed into action scenes, where I found it hard to keep track of what was going on.
If you get past these issues, you will find some moments of intense satisfaction. Oil and blood explode over one another in combat arenas as pilots suffer electrical backlash and vibrantly painted strippers inject them with drugs in the first few pages of this book. It only gets crazier from there. It’s a lightyear a minute festival of sex and violence and futuristic warfare, every chapter a new source of excitement. The political factions and their relationships to one another was sensible and well thought out. The varying perspectives of the book’s characters on how to approach revolution were well presented. Lex and her relationships are also logical, with her decisions consistently reasonable without straying out of character.
I think whether you like Cyberblade or not will depend a lot on what you value in your media. As an over the top thrillride that constantly presents you with new setpieces, Cyberblade far more than justifies its price of $20 physical or $10 digital. On the other hand, its insistence on constantly moving forward to new ideas keeps it from properly developing them or integrating them with one another. With some more development, this could have been something spectacular, instead of something that was spectacular, but only occasionally. I will be very happy to read the sequel when it comes out in 2021, but if it succeeds, it will do so because it is a more focussed work.
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