At times, Solitaire is a fascinating read! Sadly, at other times, reading this book is about as exciting as...well...playing a game of solitaire!
In the not-too-distant future, world peace has finally been achieved. As a symbol of this new era, all children born on the first second of the first attempt to unify the world have been designated "Hopes". Now the Hopes are entering adulthood, ready to take their place as figureheads for the global administration. The Hope of the world's only recognized corporate-state is Ren "Jackal" Segura. However, when Ren is blamed for a terrible tragedy, the Ko Corporation, her very homeland, severs all ties with her. Taken away from her lover, her family, and all her friends, Ren participates in an experimental virtual reality form of solitary confinement, where she will be made to spend eight years trapped in her own mind, with no contact at all from the outside world. When we are left all alone, is that when we find out who we truly are? Solitaire
is one of those most heartbreaking of novels, one that could have been so much better than it ultimately was. Even though this was Kelley Eskridge's first novel, the first half of the book was actually quite good. In it, we are introduced to Ren, her eclectic group of friends (whom she refers to as her "webmates") , her dysfunctional family, and her charismatic lover known as Snow. I found many of the characters to be engaging and wanted to keep reading more about them (even if the immensely likeable Snow did have a tendency to overshadow the grumpier Ren). Eskridge's greatest feat while writing this book was the beautiful romance she developed between Ren and her girlfriend Snow. Whereas other writers often fall into pitfalls involving "insta-love" and the so overused "love-triangles", Eskridge avoids all this by having Ren & Snow already be a couple at the beginning of the book, so we get to experience their strong emotional bond from the start. It's no accident that most of the book's most powerful and beautiful moments involve Ren and Snow.
While Eskridge does a marvelous job crafting her characters at the beginning, her inexperience as a writer does show at times. For one thing, Ren's webmates are always referred to by their code names, and since Eskridge almost never bothers to describe the secondary characters, not even by gender, it's difficult to draft a mental picture of them. Later, when Eskridge starts referring to them by gender pronouns, it can get confusing knowing who she's even referring to. Adding to the confusion factor is that Eskridge sometimes jumps back and forth between flashback sequences and present-time without any real transitioning. Also, several scenes in early chapters take place in boardroom type settings, and they're about as thrilling as real-life board meetings... I almost referred to this as a "bored room meeting", just to see if I could actually hear some of you groaning overseas!
After a couple big plot twists, Ren finds herself in solitary confinement, and while I was afraid things might get dull here, it was this part of the book where Eskridge proved just how talented she truly is! The solitary confinement section gives us brilliant psychological insight into Ren. Ren's internal struggle to preserve her sanity is both heartbreaking and mesmerizing, and it is here that we get a clear picture as to how brilliant and capable Ren really is. Indeed, by the time I got to the book's halfway point, I was convince I wouldn't be giving it any less than 4 stars...
...and then there's the second half... *SIGH*
The second half of the book concerns Ren trying to rebuild her life after her solitary confinement period. No longer welcome by the Ko Corporation, Ren is exiled to North America (now known as the Nations of North America, or the NNA). Unfortunately, Ren's experiences in the NNA are not nearly as interesting as everything that transpired previously. Ren soon stumbles upon a bar named "Solitaire" which attracts former prisoners of the same solitary confinement experiment that Ren participated in. The ex-cons are referred to by the locals as "solos", and they are idolized by fans who call themselves "watchers". You would think a setting like Solitaire would have the potential for many exciting events, but unfortunately most of the characters introduced here are simply dull. The watchers are defined almost entirely by their codependency on the solos, which leaves them with very little personality or spark of their own. The solos aren't much better...bartender Scully possesses very little charisma and may as well have just been named "MacGuffin", while the psychotic Lady Butcher constantly alludes to her supposedly-impressive body count, yet usually only manages to kill my interest in the story...
Lady Butcher presents another big problem in the second half...it makes us wonder what happened to the brilliant girl from the first half of the book! Despite the fact that Lady Butcher is a known murderer, Ren still maintains a friendship with her! Even Scully warns Ren to stay away from Butcher, but Ren insists on placing herself in potential danger from the unrepentant Lady Butcher, to the point that it almost becomes a parody! Remember those camp councilors fom the Friday the 13th movies who would stop to smoke pot and have sex while an ax murderer was chasing them?!? Even they display better decision-making skills than Ren does in the second half of the book! The person filming Jason while being killed by him still has better survival instincts than Ren Segura!
The book continues to limp towards the not-so-grand finale at a plodding pace. I kept waiting for some big reveal or startling twist, but the book meanders into a disappointing anti-climax instead. Even the ending felt completely unsatisfying, with me simply muttering, "That's it?!?"
And, finally, one of the biggest problems I had with the book was its flawed premise. I can't get too specific without revealing major spoilers, suffice to say that there is no real compelling reason given for Ren's willingness to accept complete blame for the tragedy that leads to her arrest. Yes, an explanation is given as to Ren's cooperation, but it is so flimsy, it's hard to suspend disbelief enough to accept that Ren would go along with all this. I refer to this kind of situation as "The Dollhouse Fallacy"
, referring to Joss Whedon's short-lived "Dollhouse" series, which involved operatives of a secret organization having their memories constantly altered to meet the needs of their clients. While it may seem like an intriguing concept, the big problem with the show (and with "Solitaire") is that the premise just doesn't make any sense when you think about it. When a man's daughter was kidnapped in the pilot episode, why would he hire the Dollhouse to program one of their agents with the memories of a kidnapping expert, instead of consulting, well, an actual kidnapping expert?!? Even though I thought Dollhouse was a lame show, I still watched every episode...if you didn't know that was because of my crush on Eliza Dushku, please let me welcome you to your very first visit on my Goodreads page!
So, ultimately, I'm giving this book three stars, which is really four stars for the thrilling first half and two stars for the disappointing second half. I still encourage science fiction fans to check this one out, as the solitary confinement chapters alone make this book worth reading, and romance lovers will find a lot of enjoyment from the sweet Ren/Snow relationship. Even if it stumbled towards the finish line, I'm still glad I read "Solitaire"