Binary by Stephanie Saulter – Book Review [Shadowhawk]


Shadowhawk takes a look at the sequel to Stephanie Saulter’s fantastic near-future AI debut from last year.

“When a debut is as awesome as Gemsigns was last year, you expect the debut to be even better. Binary doesn’t quite come across as fantastic as its predecessor, but it is still one of the best SF books I’ve read to date. Lots more industrial intrigue and politics this time, which are all just fascinating in the extreme. ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

For me, Gemsigns was quite a phenomenal novel that dealt with the ethical and moral implications of accepting genetically modified humans as a part of “normal” society and culture. In the near-future setting that author Stephanie Saulter conjured up, Mankind underwent a serious disease that threatened the very survival of the species, and out of this the GemTechs were born, who created a new species of humans free of any genetic markers conducive to this disease and all whom could serve as a servant class to get Mankind back on its feet. That these “gems” each had different abilities and powers depending on their function in this new bold new society, was just an aftermath of all that. In light of some recent conspiracy reveals and what not, the world government forbids the GemTechs from creating any more gems and to send all their genestock in permanent storage and abandon that line of development altogether. Out of this, we saw in Gemsigns who the gems struggled to become a part of the very society that they had formerly served and the positive and negative reactions of the “norms”, who were normal only in that they lacked the abilities of the gems and were all naturally-conceived, albeit minus the genetic markers conducive to the disease mentioned previously.

And that was the thrust of Gemsigns and Stephanie Saulter did an unexpectedly superb job of exploring that entire angle. Going into Binary, I was expecting something similar, and I wasn’t exactly disappointed, though perhaps that is more down to the subject matter than anything. Binary continues along the path of the exploration of the ethics and morals of gems and norms integrating, but it also deals much more with the histories of the two main characters, the hero Aryel Morningstar who is the leader of the gems in London, and the villain Zavka Klist who is the owner of the GemTech company Bel’Natur.

Right off the bat, the second part of the novel’s purpose is the most fascinating thing on display in this novel. Stephanie builds on these two characters, and she explores how they came to be who they are at this point in time. With Aryel, most of her story is revealed through flashbacks and with Zavka, most of her story unfolds in the present time, with some really shocking twists in the climax of the novel. We see that the pasts of these characters are inherently connected to each other and so are their fates, because they have a much deeper connection to each other than we got to find out in Gemsigns. Much of the novel is from their perspective therefore, and I loved every moment of it. I honestly could have continued on for another 100 or pages, seeing these two women interact, but sadly the novel was only so long.

The first part of the novel’s purpose, or the overall plot, deals with the segregation of the gems and norms, and this is a much more subtle plot in the novel, though at times it is also quite obvious. First, we have a norm-gem married couple in the novel, Officer Sharon Varsi of the London police and the gem leader Mikal Varsi. In the novel, we see how Sharon has to face a lot of hostility from her colleagues because of her marriage, and how she manages to rise above that, successfully as it turns out. She is somewhat of a primary character in the novel although much of her time is spent navigating the mystery of a genestock theft that could have some serious repercussions for both gems and norms alike. With Mikal we see how he is elected to be a city councilman, a campaigner for his people and the poster-boy for eliminating the rift between gems and norms. Both these characters I enjoyed and would truly have loved to see more of.

Then we have Eli Walker himself, who was a primary character in Gemsigns but takes a bit of a backseat in Binary, with his role shifting from academic and moral research into “how human gems are” and changing to uncovering the true goings-on at Bel’Natur once Zavka Klist comes to Aryel to request the services of her people for a project at her company. In the process he becomes conversant with a significant portion of Bel’Natur’s shady history and this is where the novel turns from the cerebral and ethical into being a mystery thriller of sorts. And this was equally good as all the other plotlines in Binary.

Despite all the good stuff that is packed into this novel, despite all the things that Stephanie Saulter gets right in this sequel, there are still moments where I felt that Binary was just not on the same level as Gemsigns. Part of that was because the novel seemed a bit more intricate this time and thus the pacing suffered. There were some chapters where I struggled to understand what was going on and had to reread certain portions to be clear that I had understood that portion of the text and could then figure out where it was all going to. Additionally, the climax seemed a bit too simplistic and convenient, which wasn’t something I expected, not by far. So in that respect, Binary doesn’t come close to being as… phenomenal as Gemsigns was, and perhaps that is because the two novels have a different focus to each other.

But, I should point out that the novel is still pretty damn good, and given all the things that Stephanie gets right, it is also a pretty legit sequel to the author’s first novel. The setting is one that I love and the same goes for the characters as well, who are all fascinating to one degree or another. And they really can surprise as you move through the story and towards the shocking twists at the end, which really prove to be something unique despite their… convenience.

And in that vein, Binary is certainly a novel that I would recommend to everyone. You could even pick it up as you first Stephanie Saulter novel and not go back to read Gemsigns, although I would strongly suggest that you read the books in order so that you can get the full context of events in this novel and see how everything fits together. Plus reading the books in order is just a wonderful experience too, so there’s that as well.

Rating: 8.5/10

More ®Evolution: Gemsigns.

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.