The Demi-Monde: Winter is a text which is defined by its setting. Fortunately, that setting is quite clever. If you read the back of the book (or the `Back of book' text on Amazon) and were put off, you might want to give it another look. I'm glad I did.
Essentially, the Demi-Monde of the text is a virtual simulation, constructed and populated by the military, with 30 million virtual people (or `Dupes'), and architected to simulate a perpetual state of war, through population pressure, resource scarcity, political extremism and various other factors; the most notable of these is the `seeding' of the setting with several high-functioning `dictator' personalities, which have risen to control their respective areas of the Demi-Monde simulation. Essentially, the Demi-Monde is a simulated hell, populated by millions of suffering normal individuals, and led by the worst minds of human history.
However, something has gone wrong; the means of entry into this virtual world have been locked down. The few soldiers inside captured and used unspeakably, unable to wake up and return to reality; and somehow, the US President's daughter has wandered inside, and disappeared. The protagonist is a female jazz singer, selected by necessity, who is sent to retrieve this missing daughter and get them both out of the Demi-Monde.
Oddly enough, I didn't come to the text expecting much; the idea of a virtual world ruled by psychopaths seemed a little off-the wall, a pastiche version of Tad Williams `Otherland'. The conceit of the President's daughter being lost gave it something of a `24' feel - it sounded, really, a little silly. But somehow, it works. The protagonist is well written, given strong views and a forceful personality, but not imbued with any special talents. Her motives are convincing, and internal dialogue consistent.
The supporting cast, both real and `dupes' are equally well done. Many of them are deeply unpleasant people, as befits the setting, and they act that way - though usually with some self-justifying pragmatism. Interestingly, the reader finds themselves invested in the `dupe' characters, despite the fact that they aren't real, at about the same rate as the protagonist. By the end of the text, each of the characters is `real', and we care about their fates, even though we are told that they are simple simulations. Interestingly, several of the characters maintain fairly solid personae through the text, but others develop in interesting, unexpected, and appropriate ways.
The plotting is excellent; laced with twists, turns, and unexpected circumstances. The fast-paced prose gives it the feel of a thriller, and the well-drawn series of events makes it a good one. Perhaps my only complaint is the overuse of capitalisation in the middle of Dem-Monde concepts (for example, one of the dominant political creeds is UnFunDamentalism). A few of these make up amusing puns, but after a while, I just wanted to get through a page without any capitalisation - still this is a minor niggle.
Overall, the central conceit is interesting, with enough variations on the familiar `virtual world' theme to make it unique. The world itself is intriguing, the characters well drawn, the dialogue snappy and the plot fast and furious, making for an excellent debut. The Demi Monde does not disappoint.