Two sisters. One future.
Winter Kim and her sister, Rose, have escaped the past and started over in a new place where no one knows who they used to be. Now they work as digital stunt girls for Rose’s ex-boyfriend, Gideon, engaging in dangerous and enticing activities while recording their neural impulses for his Vicarious Sensory Experiences, or ViSEs. Whether it’s bungee jumping, shark diving, or grinding up against celebrities at the city’s hottest dance clubs, Gideon can make it happen for you, for a price.
When Rose disappears and a ViSE recording of her murder is delivered to Gideon, Winter is devastated. She won’t rest until she finds her sister’s killer. But when the clues she uncovers conflict with the digital recordings her sister made, Winter isn’t sure what to believe. To find out what happened to Rose, she’ll have to untangle what’s real from what only seems real, risking her own life in the process.
I’ve read only one of Stokes’s books earlier Girl Against the Universe, which had impressed me with its brilliant writing and portrayal of a girl with mental disorder, so I was optimistic about Vicarious. In the contemporary world of Vicarious, virtual reality tech is one step ahead and there is a new technology called ViSE, which provides a near complete sensory experience in a virtual setting. The main character, Winter, is a girl who works as a recorder, as in a person who goes through the experiences (which are usually something thrilling) and records them for the ViSE users. Vicarious provides a unique story in its setting, with Winter on the hunt for her sister’s killers, using ViSE recordings as clues.
Firstly, I have to gush a little about Winter herself. She is a fierce, badass protagonist who does adrenaline-raising stuff on a regular basis, yes, but she is also determined, loyal and clever. Her relationship with her sister defines her life, and kind of sets the plot for this story. She has lived in the shadow of her sister, who took care of her and raised her, and protected her when they were both victims of human trafficking, and naturally she looks up to her – a lot. Her motivations for solving her sister’s murder are obvious, but as she gets further into the story, we start to realize that she is an unreliable narrator due to the trauma from her past experiences. I can’t fully comment on the portrayal of PTSD, but it seems well-written into the plot. The culmination of all these circumstances makes for a story that fits her wholly.
Getting past our protagonist, we have two supporting characters who are basically family to Winter – Gideon and Jesse. Gideon is like a parental figure to her, and though he seems involved in shady stuff, it cannot be denied that he cares for her immensely. Their bonding and the cultural emphasis of that bond is a cornerstone of their relationship. Jesse, meanwhile, is a difficult character to like at first, because of how Winter views him – his past is also a bit troubled and he has a slightly warped view on the world (pun unintended, really) – but he is also protective without being suffocating. When it comes to putting together suspects, however, their seemingly ambiguous moralities don’t exclude them from her suspicion.
The tech of the ViSEs is an interesting part of the plot, and while I expected more death-defying stunts (thanks to the blurb), it was a different aspect of the tech that the author focused on. It does sound like an impressive thing. I just had one issue with them – the seemingly portable nature of the collection sounds a little far-fetched. Also, there were some plot points that felt contrived (rather than organic) – like how Rose’s death was not made to look like a suicide instead (which would have raised less questions, just saying). Those little things aside, though, the climax delivered a shocking twist – like, I was maybe expecting a small part of what was revealed, but it still pulled out the rug from underneath me!
Finally, the book has a diverse set of characters and includes Korean cultures in a way that blends in well with the story-line. Winter and Gideon are Korean immigrants, Jesse is biracial and of Mexican heritage. The story also involves a good portrayal of PTSD and, uh, I’ll keep the other one out of this review to keep it spoiler-free. It has a dark feel to it, which somehow doesn’t fit in with regular YA contemporary or thriller books, but it also kind of fits because of the themes. Overall, a great start to what I hope is a fantastic series.
Content warnings: I would advise readers caution for the mention of self-harm, suicidal tendencies and mention of sexual assault and sex trafficking.