There are two schools of thought when it comes to storytelling, and they break down on a very basic idea; is it better to have a great beginning, or a great ending? Obviously having a great beginning, middle and end would be preferred, but in an imperfect world sometimes priorities must be set. I know a lot of publishing houses feel the beginning is the more important aspect, that readers will decide whether to read a book within the first chapter or three, and you have to hook them early to get them to stick around for the ending. For myself, I think the ending is more important, since I usually decide whether to read a book based on the cover and the inside blurb. I can think of only one book I've ever stopped reading in protest of a terrible beginning, but I can remember rather a lot whose endings left me feeling profoundly dissatisfied.
Reality 36, by Guy Haley, is another on that list.
It's unfortunate, because I really want to like this book. Set in the 22nd century, Reality 36 is a 'Richards and Klein Investigation', a tagline that leads to the most delightful of hypothetical pitches: "Richards is an unbodied AI; Otto Klein is an ex-German military combat cyborg; They solve mysteries." What's not to love there, even for those who aren't as hopelessly besotted with stories of non-cartoonishly evil AI as myself? And in truth, there is a lot to love in this book. Both characters are strong and distinct, with Richards aping a '50s noir detective's aesthetics every chance he gets but not being averse to occasionally piloting a humanoid war machine through a factory-fortress, and Klein being as close to a Luddite as a cyborg can be, with lingering issues from his service days and a dry, slightly sarcastic sense of humour. Their world is likewise well realized, a post-climate change wreck filled equally with glittering arcologies and decaying urban wastelands, opera singing superintelligent AI and annoyingly chipper smartphones, all meshed together in a believably muddled state. The AI are mostly running the place, with a 5, the highest classification of AI, in charge of the EU police forces and the 'Three Uncle Sams' ruling the United States of North America. The only exception is China, where it's hinted an AI, the 'Ghost Emperor', caused sufficiently catastrophic damage that China has outlawed AI within their sovereign digital territory, and is entirely willing to kill any AI that tries to penetrate the Great Firewall of China. But the nice thing about Reality 36 is that the AI aren't in humanity's face with their leadership; mostly they take a long view, and adjust things in small ways to achieve the optimum result, rather than having some kind of garish mechanical oracle squatting in the middle of the UN building, barking orders at the world. It's a control you can believe in, in no small part because you don't actually see much of it.
As for the plot, it's a pretty standard sci-fi mystery story; a professor working on a highly classified project disappears, his student goes on the lam, and people connected with the professor start turning up dead. That several of those people appear to be the professor himself adds a nice little wrinkle to the issue, and by the time the reveal comes, the action has chugged along strongly enough that, after a fortress-factory invasion, a sniper attack on a diner, and a nuclear weapon detonated in an arcology, the reader is as invested in finding out what's going on as the characters are. And, in a sense, the reveal doesn't disappoint.
I said the ending of this book was a big problem, and it was. In order to talk about it, though, I'm going to have to go into a bit of spoiler territory. If you're interested, and despite its flaws I'd still highly recommend Reality 36, you should read the book before continuing on with this review. Don't worry, it's not going anywhere.
So. The problem with the ending of this book is that, frankly, there isn't one. The subplot involving the titular Reality 36, one of a series of computer generated universes so realistic that the UN has declared their inhabitants sentient and deserving of protection from human interference, suddenly becomes integral to the main plot. Unfortunately, it's never really clear what the villain is using Reality 36 for. Oh, the protagonists talk about it, and seem to know what's going on, but there's no real detail to it; you know this is bad, but you're not totally clear on why. Worse, it turns out the mission to stop the issue in Reality 36 was a trap, into which both Richards and the EuPol 5 have stepped, a trap that somehow also attacks various cyborg, smart-vehicle and weak-AI-guided weapons platforms in the area, starting what two characters refer to as a war against, well, presumably everyone else. And then it stops. Richards is trapped, cyborgs are hijacked, hacked tanks shoot at the good guys' allies, two of the protagonists make a desperate escape, and then it's like the writer hit an arbitrary word count and had to stop typing. I checked the publication list in the front, a mini-publisher's catalogue in the back, no sign of an additional book anywhere there. The only hint, in fact, is that the timeline, printed as an appendix after the story, lists the 'present' as being when the events of Reality 36 and something called The Omega Point took place. Presumably the next book, it would have been nice to know this was going to end on a big fat 'To Be Continued...' going into this. As it is, frankly, the ending is so frustrating as to sour much of what went before it. Worse, so much of the story isn't actually resolved because of this ending that it hampers the overall flow of the book.
It was, in other words, a really terrible ending.
And yet... And yet, I'd still recommend this book to any scifi mystery fan. Like I said, the characters are good, the action set-pieces are solid, those parts of the mystery that get resolved do so quite well indeed. And if you went in knowing that 'To Be Continued...' is waiting there for you, I suspect it wouldn't be nearly so annoying when it happened.
Still. Openings and endings; the thing about them is, you can forget a bad one of the former by the time you reach the latter, but a bad ending will be the last thing you experience. It's why I think they're so important.