The Premise: (from the back blurb) Five hundred years from now, ex-corporate mercenary Koko Martstellar is swaggering through an early retirement as a brothel owner on The Sixty Islands, a manufactured tropical resort archipelago known for its sex and simulated violence. Surrounded by slang-drooling boywhores and synthetic komodo dragons, the most challenging part of Koko's day is deciding on her next drink. That is, until her old comrade Portia Delacompte sends a squad of security personnel to murder her.
Read an excerpt of Koko Takes a Holiday here
My Thoughts: Koko Takes a Holiday is the latest book I've read, picked up at the library based on the cover alone. It looks like pop art, mostly grayscale with big orange stripes, a pop of yellow and blue, and Koko, front and center, holding a gun and staring into your soul. If you look closely there's things going on in the orange stripes, like explosions and a giant shark chasing a surfer. I really like this cover, but to be honest, once I looked past it, I worried this wasn't the book for me. When I actually read the back blurb and saw "brothel" and "boywhores" and "sex and simulated violence", plus saw that all the quotes were by male authors (and the Library Journal), I was a little worried about what I was stepping into. Was this going to be all action and glorification of sex and violence that I would just not be able to connect to? Am I just the wrong audience? I began reading with trepidation.
First of all, yes, this is a story that is visual and violent; a science-fiction action blockbuster in words. This is what I "saw" whilst reading the first few pages: it starts with some black-and-white static, a one minute promo for The Sixty Islands with a fast-talking announcer telling us we can have it all and destroy it all, then fade into a darkened bar where someone is cleaning up the "red scrambled eggs everywhere" and the voice over is an earnest "boywhore" telling us that the two dead guests had it coming. A handful of pages later the bar/brothel is in flames and Koko is a fugitive. Koko, the action hero of this adventure, is exactly as the cover promises, a larger than life bad-ass. She's introduced as madame in a manufactured, over-the-top "paradise", but once the guns begin blazing, her mercenary background comes to the fore. A veteran of many missions for multinational conglomerates, she is familiar with guns, seedy characters, and staying alive. Realizing that her ex-commander and friend, now Vice President at the Custom Pleasure Bureau, Portia Delacompte (the very person who helped fulfill Koko's dream of running a bar), is behind the order for her execution, we've got the set up for the story -- a shady corporate executive, betrayal, and a brutal pursuit against the backdrop of spaceships and floating cities.
There is definitely this casual violence, high technology, and hectic pace in a corporate-run world that makes me think of Sin City, Robocop, Johnny Mnemonic, and Strange Days...very cyberpunk. This could be one-note, but while this mostly centers on Koko, the third person narration does rove to other characters, like the hired guns after Koko, Portia Delacompte's ambitious but terrified assistant, and Portia Delacompte herself. The way the narration moved from character to character felt well-timed so I never felt like I needed to put the book down for a little bit (which I do very easily these days), so I finished Koko in one continuous gulp. We're also introduced to Jedidiah Flynn, a Security Deputy suffering from Depressus on the atmospheric floating barge, the Alaungpaya who meets Koko while she's on the run. I felt like his inclusion in this story bumped up the storytelling a few points. When the perspective changed to this straight-laced guy who recently found out he had months to live, Koko Takes a Holiday revealed a character-driven storyline that I tend to gravitate to. The attitude toward Depressus (a form of depression affecting some suborbital residents) made me pay closer attention to the dystopian aspects of the world-building. That's when a lightbulb came on regarding the casual violence and commercialization of death in this world and how the evil megacorporations were the true "bad guys" of the story.
When it sunk in that the violence was pretty much part and parcel of the cyberpunk package (don't ask me why it took me so long to get this), it turned off my questioning why it was there, and I appreciated how good the writing and the world building were. What I really liked was the inclusion of Depressus (trying to remember the last time I read a book that included a struggle with depression and am coming up blank), and the glimpses into the points of view of the main antagonist, Portia Delacompte, and the contract killers. I enjoyed the details of Portia's burning ambition, like joining a religious organization and following all its self-flagellation rituals in order to fit in with the rest of management.
What I wish had more oomph was the plot. When you strip away the world, the plot centered around a "bad guy eliminating a obstacle", and when we find out the reason behind this, I felt disconnected from it. I was already inured at that point: more evidence that the antagonist is despicable was unsurprising. Something that went a little deeper would have made this story more memorable. I think that if this was more of a character-driven story, I would have accepted the weak plot, but it wasn't - besides Flynn, who felt flawed and human, everyone else was interesting but still felt like they were representations of their roles, not individuals.
Overall: This is well written, the type of writing where after a while, the words just disappear and my imagination takes over. I never felt a lull where I was tempted to take a break from reading, the point of view cleverly switched from Koko's desperate run to the frustration of the bounty hunters to the ambitions of Portia Delacompte and stayed fresh. Despite this, the plot didn't give me any surprises, I wanted more connection with the characters, and the strength of the world buillding and writing wasn't enough to overcome these issues. This means that overall my reaction to Koko Takes a Holiday is, "It was OK".
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