Two of this week’s other featured books, “Their Houses,” by Meredith Sue Willis and “Hawthorn Woods,” by Patrick Canning can be found by scrolling down below this post, or by clicking their name on our Authors page. To access Michael Braden’s book, try https://wordpress.com/post/snowflakesarise.wordpress.com/22339
THE BOOK: The Sentient
PUBLISHED IN: 2020
THE AUTHOR: Nadia Afifi
THE EDITOR: Don D’Auria
THE PUBLISHER: Flame Tree Press.
SUMMARY: A science fiction story about clones, cults and consciousness, The Sentient is set in a polarized future. The wider world has modernized and evolved, but a zealous minority hold onto their traditions in religious fundamentalist compounds in the American Southwest. Amira Valdez escaped one of those compounds years ago and is now trying to carve out a new life for herself in the Pacific Northwestern city of Westport. But when she’s assigned to a cloning project, her past catches up with her.
The cloning project has become a controversial scientific undertaking in Westport after several of the young, female test subjects die in mysterious circumstances. The last surviving subject is a troubled young compound escapee and Amira suspects that her health issues have psychological causes. Using her skills in reading thoughts and memories, Amira unravels the subject’s past while uncovering a bigger secret – someone is trying to stop the cloning project from succeeding, at all costs.
As Amira uncovers a wider conspiracy, she navigates the dangerous underworld of the city she calls home, encountering a New Age religious movement, rogue space cops and scientists with hidden agendas. In order to protect the cloning subject from a terrible fate, she must overcome her own demons and confront her past.
THE BACK STORY:
I started off wanting to tell a different kind of story about human cloning. In most movies, books and TV shows, cloning is framed as something deviant and dangerous. “Playing God,” and so on. An idea had been stewing in my head for a story where the conflict didn’t lie with cloning itself being a bad idea, but in the irrational fear and opposition to it. From there, a much bigger story took shape as I started writing, and the themes got broader – the way a scientific breakthrough can have positive end goals but end up being hijacked by people with very specific, political agendas. By the end of the novel, you see that cloning wasn’t the crux of the story. A much bigger, scarier conflict is at stake, one that will play out for the rest of the series.
WHY THIS TITLE?: I struggled with the title for my novel before finally settling on “The Sentient.” Consciousness and personal identity are major themes in the novel, and I liked the punchiness of “The Sentient.” It describes Amira, my main character, well, because she navigates a dangerous world with her feelings, perceptions and empathy as her main weapons. She’s not a knife-wielding, butt-kicking kind of heroine. She has to use her emotional intelligence to get out of some very dangerous situations.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? If you like science fiction that’s rich in world-building and big ideas, this novel might be what you’re looking for. There’s plenty of interesting, complex settings, from futuristic cities to shadowy space stations. I consider the city of Westport to be a character in the story, and one of my favorite ones. This future world is heavy with different religions, philosophies and cultures that shape its complicated people. I tried to create a world that felt both different but very relatable to the here and now.
“The Sentient was such a fun, pacey, sometimes crunchy, satisfying book to read. I want the sequel now, actually, even though this one isn’t out until September!” Goodreads Review
“The Sentient is a thought-provoking book that quickly pushes the reader beyond your standard dystopian future ethical questions.” Goodreads Review
“There was so much action in The Sentient, yet, the author always lets us catch our breath before going at it again, making the whole thing well-balanced, which can be difficult to achieve. For that, I’m grateful. I loved the world the story is set in, the intricate connections between all the places and people in the book.” Goodreads Review
AUTHOR PROFILE: I’m a natural wanderer who’s found her home in Denver, Colorado, where I love to hike and stand-up paddle board when I’m not writing novels. Having grown up in the Middle East, I miss good hummus and palm trees from time to time. If I could travel constantly, I would – I love meeting new people, experiencing a new city and broadening my worldview. Dogs of all sizes and jigsaw puzzles give me joy. By the end of this pandemic, I want to have learned a new language and mastered a handstand.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: I want to tell science fiction stories that raise difficult questions without trying to answer them for the reader. But above all, I want them to be entertaining. I think the best novels are the ones that suck you into a different world and whose characters linger with you long after you close the book.
CHAPTER ONE: Wilderness
The Green line to Bedlam was the oldest train route through Westport, a clogged, aging artery through the city’s industrial zone. Inside one of its trembling cars, Amira Valdez pressed her face against the cool window, exhaling with forced steadiness. She had not felt this anxious on a train since her escape from the Children of the New Covenant Compound ten years ago. The train shuddered as it passed over a battered section of the tracks. Amira clenched her fists, digging her nails into her whip-scarred palms, another remnant of the compound.
Amira’s morning commute to the Academy was normally a pleasant one, but today was Placement Day, and far from ordinary.
She pulled away from the window, where the tracks ascended above ground and the dense, grimy brick buildings of the Riverfront district came into view. Academy students filled the train car, all prepared in their own way for the most important day of the year. A gangly young man with a green mohawk leaned against one of the central poles, muttering a string of equations. Another student grimly performed lunges near the door, inciting glares every time new passengers boarded. No one made eye contact. Talented students abounded at the Academy and assignments were limited. Assignments in space would be even rarer.
Space. Her mentor, Dr. Mercer, called it the world above the world. For Amira, the research stations orbiting overhead represented everything the compound was not – unburdened by the past, a place that welcomed the unknown and challenged the idea of the unknowable. She belonged there. But if she failed to place well in the Aldwych district, the epicenter of the city of Westport’s Lower Earth Orbit industry, today’s exams would mercilessly destroy her dreams of working spaceside. Those countless hours she’d spent as a lonely child, hiding on the roof and searching the night sky for space-bound shuttles, would mean nothing. She had to succeed. Amira chewed her lower lip, forcing down her doubts.
The outlines of Aldwych’s imposing skyscrapers rose in the distance as the Green line turned east. A faint trail of smoke from the Galileo building signaled a recent shuttle launch. Amira ran her finger along the condensed window glass, tracing the shuttle’s skyward path toward the stations. Waves of adrenaline pulsed through her small frame, growing stronger as she neared the Academy’s stop.
You’ve waited a long time for this day, her inner voice encouraged. You know you’re ready. This is what you were meant to do. This is who you’re meant to be.
The train announced its arrival at the Academy with a dull, screeching wail. The student reciting equations switched to a torrent of expletives. As she stepped outside, Amira’s heart quickened at the sight of the Academy’s elegant, angular walls, the sleek architecture of its buildings amplified by the comparatively grim, industrial neighborhood that surrounded it. Despite Oregon’s mild climate, the Academy adopted a distinctly tropical aesthetic. The school’s founder conducted her research in the Brazilian rainforest and brought the jungle back with her. Synthetic palm trees lined the walkways and vines crawled over the self-consciously modernist buildings, their concrete walls made to look like timber. Amira touched the founder’s statue every time she passed it, as though she could absorb the late scientist’s essence through the marble.
The Academy’s main building hosted the Placement Day trials. Its corridors were remarkably silent save for Amira’s echoing footsteps and the occasional somber-faced student shuffling by. A dull-eyed teaching assistant ordered Amira to Room Four. So her fate would be decided there. Amira took a steadying breath and followed the instruction, striding with as much confidence as she could muster beyond the lecture hall.
A small, pale figure emerged from the lecture hall’s towering doors. Amira’s best friend, D’Arcy Pham, grinned excitedly, raising her fist in triumph. Though the knot in her stomach tightened further, Amira returned the smile and they clasped hands briefly. D’Arcy mouthed the word ‘Pandora’ before turning around the corridor.
Amira blinked with surprise. The Pandora project, spearheaded by a team of elite Aldwych scientists, was really a collection of projects with one common theme – a desire to push the boundaries of science as far as law, budget and human understanding would allow. It was no surprise that D’Arcy, a top quantum programmer at the Academy who custom-made her own Third Eye, had placed well – but Pandora? The project was both unusually prestigious and clandestine, even by the standards of insular Aldwych.
And there it was – Room Four. Amira found no external indicators of what awaited her beyond the door, but she had a reasonable guess. She managed to evade one test in her ten years of study, but she would not face the panel without completing it. Just as police officers had to be shocked before they could inflict the pain of a nano-pulse Taser, Amira would have to lay her own mind bare before she could become an Academy-approved therapist and holomentic reader. She exhaled, memories of glimmering space stations and night skies dancing in her mind’s eye, and walked through the door.
* * *
Amira sat still, arms folded in her lap with sensory pads attached to her forehead and temples. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes when the first needle entered her wrist. The standard dose of Nirvatrene, cooling as it found her vein.
“Are you ready?” A lanky young man with horn-rimmed glasses pulled up a seat next to her, monitor hovering over his knees. “Nervous? I can change our background to a beach or park, or whatever you prefer.”
“I’m fine.” The walls were white, windowless and sterile.
“All right then. We’ll submerge in a few minutes.”
In the seconds before her thoughts would no longer be hers alone, Amira allowed herself a final moment of calculation. Her skills as a holomentic reader, the latest breakthrough in thought-visualizing neuroscience, did not interest the Placement Panel. This exercise was ultimately a psychological evaluation, intended to deliver a verdict on her emotional stability for a position that gave her access to patients’ innermost thoughts. A verdict on the soundness of her mind, not what she could do with it.
The sensory pads warmed against Amira’s face, joined by an odd, pulling sensation in the back of her head, as though an invisible hand tried to reel her in like a fish on a hook. She struggled to concentrate on the door, but it grew harder and harder to focus. The hologram table to her right projected images from her brain as she experienced them, in flashes of shapes and color that formed threedimensional scenes. Initially dim and blurry, they took form while the man, her assigned reader, adjusted dials and dragged his fingers across a large monitor.
Amira clenched her fists. She fought to keep her expression neutral, but the glimpses of memory continued to appear, gaining clarity and strength under the reader’s skilled navigation.
This was only the first step. The reader probed the first level of her consciousness and would move in deeper as he navigated the complex neural map in front of him. Any Academy student could learn to read the map of the human mind – the real skill, one Amira possessed in abundance, was knowing where to look.
Amira shivered. If this reader could find points of weakness the way she could, the next hour would test her like nothing else.
“Ok, Amira, let’s start,” he said. “In the interest of treating this like a proper therapy session, let’s focus on a moment from your past and dissect what it means together. In your profile, it says you were originally born in one of the religious compounds in the southwest. Correct?”
Amira suppressed a sigh. As she had dreaded, she would have to relive the compound, the epicenter of all her traumas, to pass her final test.
“Yes,” she said. No sooner had the words escaped her lips, the tugging sensation returned.
“What do you think of when you remember life on Children of the New Covenant?” he asked. An open-ended and vague question, a common tactic to start off a holomentic therapy session. Amira closed her eyes and centered her thoughts on the word ‘compound’. Other words darted into her thoughts as well, along with images and sounds – of violence, of terror – that would never leave her, but she resisted, struggling to focus on the word alone and not the memories it evoked.
And there it was, clear and vivid on the nearby hologram – the compound, at night. It gave off an otherworldly light from a distance, its pale, round buildings glowing like craterless moons rising out of the Sonoran valley. It was the only source of light for hundreds of miles on those typical nights marred by ashy clouds or smog from the western cities. Its inhabitants left those cities generations ago to escape the modern world’s liberties and license, but civilization still found ways to reach them.
With the luxury of distance and time between her and her place of birth, Amira let herself see the unsettling beauty of the place, the hushed calm that descended over the desert when the sunlight dissolved over the mountains. The solar power that fueled the compound left the pathways and low buildings glowing with an eerie, bluish light at night. But Amira knew the secret lives that existed within each of those orb-like houses, the hidden violence and despair contained within every wall. The way people disappeared, never to be spoken of again except in quiet whispers. The way women and girls barely ranked above livestock, a means to an end.
Her face grew clammy at the sight of the barbed wires around the compound walls and she pushed the image aside with effort, closing her eyes. Her heart quickened as sound replaced sight, screams and cries from old punishments. The burning of Chimyra, warm and thick in her throat, at the start of the Passage Ceremony. Another tug in her head.
The scene in the hologram shifted to a young girl with long black hair. No older than thirteen, the girl shivered on her knees in a small shed. She lifted her shaking hands to gaze at her palms, which were raw and bleeding in thin trails onto the floor.
“Amira? Are you ok?”
The man’s voice, though distant, cut through her thundering heartbeat. Amira swallowed and nodded. Biting her lip in frustration, she redirected her thoughts back to her first image of the compound at night, but she could feel the man probing deeper into her thought patterns, the sensors warming slightly against her temples.
“Ok, let’s focus on that memory for a minute. I see a lot of fear activated around the prelimbic cortex, very conditioned fear, of course. Why are you in that small space and what brought you there?”
Amira’s mouth went dry. That was the first night she tried to escape, and the punishment was predictably severe. She had spent months building her resolve to leave, knowing the consequences of failure…and then she had failed. Residual pain flashed across her palms, and she balled her fists.
Opening her eyes, Amira could see the images in the hologram shifting again, from the shed to a large crowd in a clearing. Most were children or teenagers, rapt and bright-eyed, flanked by stonyfaced adults in long black coats. No trees or clouds shielded them from a fierce sun, though shadows from nearby hills stretched in their direction. The Gathering.
Amira grimaced, trying to redirect her thoughts to the shed, to the smell of blood and fear, but it was too late.
“The Gathering?” the man asked with interest, dragging his fingers along the words that appeared on his monitor. “What does that mean? Is that what I’m looking at right now?”
He’s good, Amira thought. He knew when to prod further and follow an idea, and when to hold back on what he suspected to be true. They were moving closer together toward a defining moment, one that ultimately brought her to this very room. A moment she never wanted the Academy, or anyone, to expose. She dug her fingernails into her palms.
LOCAL OUTLETS: Bookbar in Denver, Colorado.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble.
PRICE: Kindle $6.99, Paperback $14.95 and Hardcover $24.95
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: Twitter handle @nadoodles or on my Facebook Author Page (Nadia Afifi). My web site iswww.nadiaafifi.com.