An exciting, dangerous and sensual sci-fi by a new SA author.
Fay Lee is a South Australian author and the winner of the Hawkeye Publishing Manuscript Development Prize, an initiative that gives emerging Australian authors the chance to have their voice heard in the publishing industry, known to be notoriously difficult to break into. A book by a previously unpublished author can be gamble, but in this case, Lee’s first novel Empathy definitely pays off.
We are thrown into a world where the rich have abandoned life on Earth in favour of living in luxurious Sky Towns. Huge screens create false views of beautiful landscapes, allowing these billionaires to forget everything but their own pleasure—and the ultimate pleasure comes from pleasure nymphs possessing enhanced skin capable of enhancing the client’s every sensation. One of these nymphs awakens to discover she has been tortured and re-healed, her money gone. She has almost no memories from the past few months, and no idea who could be responsible. What follows is a steamy tale of intrigue, politics, and a close look at sex work in this futuristic world.
Interestingly, the main character’s name is never revealed. All pleasure nymphs use the pronoun “she” so the reader is also left unaware of who this person might have been before their body was altered to become a nymph. This choice is effective in emphasising the pleasure nymphs’ status as objects available for purchase, and the lack of humanity with which society views them: nymphs are not people, but merely extremely high-tech sex toys. Lee manages to avoid naming the main character without it coming across as forced avoidance, to the point that it was some time before I even noticed that I didn’t know the protagonist’s name.
The whole concept of sex workers in a decadent futuristic world has some of the flavour of Brave New World, with a little Handmaid’s Tale thrown in for good measure. The rich indulge, ignoring the breaking down of the world around them, and while the nymphs seem privileged, the limitations of their status in this world become clear as the story progresses. There’s a dash of dystopia and a sprinkle of cyberpunk, though this book doesn’t quite fit either genre; rather, as the author describes it, it is “sci-fi for women who don’t know they like sci-fi.” Indeed, with the characters and drama at the forefront, and the sci-fi elements often little more than an exotic backdrop, this book is potentially a good gateway for someone looking to give sci-fi a try for the first time.
Empathy throws you into the action and intrigue from the very first paragraph; it’s gripping and keeps you turning pages. However, I do wish there had been more world-building in those early chapters. It took some time to piece together how these Sky Towns worked and the society functioned. It came together eventually, but a few more useful descriptions early on would have helped to paint a clearer picture in the first few chapters.
Empathy is a book that treads a fine line between the highly sexual content and limiting the descriptions of actual sex acts. With the main character essentially a high-tech escort, sex is naturally a big part of the story, but it never crosses the line into erotic fiction. However, this book definitely holds a rating for ages 15+.
Empathy is exciting, dangerous, and sensual. It is definitely worth taking a gamble on this new SA author.
Reviewed by Kristin Stefanoff
This revew is the opinion of the reviewer and not necessarily of Glam Adelaide.
Distributed by: Hawkeye Publishing
Released: April 2022