It’s been described as Star Wars meets The Hunger Games, yet that tempting comparison doesn’t truly capture the essence of S. J. Kincaid’s stand-alone YA novel, The Diabolic. Yes, it takes place in space. And yes, it’s very much a brutal battle of life and death. But it’s much more than that. This is a story about love and devotion, intergalactic beliefs and tenuous political allegiances, but above everything else, this is a tale about what it means to be human.

At the very heart of the story is Nemesis – a super strong, super fast humanoid creature designed for one single purpose: to keep her master safe. Nemesis is bonded to Sidonia, the daughter of a galactic senator, and she’ll do absolutely anything to ensure the young and fragile teenager remains unharmed and alive. Nemesis will kill for her master and she will die for her too. That’s the way it has always been, the way it’s supposed to be.

“We looked like people, to be sure. We had the DNA of people, but we were something else: creatures fashioned to be utterly ruthless and totally loyal to a single individual.”

The problem is, Nemesis and her species have become too good at their jobs. They “protect one and pose a threat to all others”, and with political uprising looming, the sadistic Emperor orders the termination of all Diabolics to ensure his continued reign. Destroying Nemesis isn’t an option for Sidonia, who views the humanoid as a beloved family member, and so they hatch a plan to fake Nemesis’ extermination. For a while peace is restored, until Sidonia’s father, Senator von Impyrean, angers the Emperor with his blatant, law-breaking scientific studies.

Still fearing a rebellion, the Emperor chastises the Senator by summoning Sidonia to his galactic court as his hostage. It would be like sending a lamb to the slaughter and Sidonia’s shrewd mother knows this. So she disguises Nemesis as her daughter and sends the Diabolic to court instead. It’s the perfect plan and Nemesis is willing to partake, knowing it will keep her master alive. She’s even prepared to murder the Emperor, and anyone else who gets in her way, if he discovers their deceit.

Nemesis heads to the Chrysanthemum and poses as the meek Impyrean heir, a task that doesn’t come naturally to a humanoid designed to be a killing machine, with minimal social skills and an act-now-think-later attitude. It’s here that the story advances as Nemesis is thrown into a world of space politics, betrayal and duplicity that begins to alter her outlook and continuing mission.the-diabolic-cover-crop-02Drawing thematic comparisons to the superb Channel 4 television drama Humans, The Diabolic explores the notion of humanity – what does being human involve? Just because a person is defined as being ‘human’, doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of being cruel and barbaric. So if humans can acquire inhumane traits, why can’t humanoids learn kindness and love? By showing her Diabolic friendship and compassion, Sidonia’s humanity becomes embedded in Nemesis’ psyche.

Nemesis and Sidonia’s sisterly relationship begins the story and gives it purpose, but it’s the Diabolic’s surprise association with the Emperor’s mad nephew, Tyrus, which sends the story – quite literally – soaring through space. These are well fleshed out and interesting characters, each with multiple different sides that stop them becoming one-dimensional. They’re all a little damaged, all with a mission and motive for their unpredictable actions. As with all the best novels, the villains are truly, detestably evil – like the power-hungry Emperor and his cunning mother – and the heroes of the story have to be crushed in spectacular fashion before they can rise up again.

S. J. Kincaid has built a galactic world that’s beautiful and frightening, described so vividly it’s very much like a Star Wars movie. And whilst it’s written for a YA audience, this is the type of book that anyone who loves sci-fi fantasy can enjoy. It has space travel, friendship, romance, grief, revenge and humanoids fighting to the death – what’s not to love? With an adventurous, high-concept plot and emotionally complex characters, The Diabolic is definitely one of the best YA books of the year.

★★★★★

The Diabolic is published in hardback by Simon & Schuster UK on 1 November 2016.

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