Review of Deep State by Walter Jon Williams


This is the second book in the Dagmar Shaw series, exploring the cyberworld and its potential to change reality. This Is Not A Game started the trilogy off with a bang, when Dagmar, an alternate reality games designer, found herself in the middle of a violent revolution in Jakata which was the start of a series of brutal events that sucked her into a world of violence every bit as frightening as anything she has ever designed…

So – the question is, does Deep State deliver the same smart, cyber-cool storyline and enjoyable slices of humour?

deepstateDagmar Shaw is one of the world’s hottest designers of alternate reality games. She is the Puppetmaster and thousands of gamers are dancing on her strings. But when the campaign she is running in Turkey comes into conflict with the new, brutal regime, she realises that games can have very real consequences.

When an old friend approaches Dagmar with a project so insane, so ambitious, she can’t possibly say no, she is plunged into a world of spies and soldiers. As a nation hangs in the balance, the bullets become real and gamers start dying. In this world of intrigue and betrayal, the master player must face the possibility that she has, herself, been played…

Williams has certainly fixed the slight wobbles in Dagmar’s characterisation apparent in This Is Not A Game – I found her a much stronger, more believable protagonist this time around. I particularly liked the fact that despite her evident skills and charisma, she has been left with post-traumatic stress syndrome after events in This Is Not A Game. A pleasant change to find violence causing such believable mayhem in a fictional character…

As for the storyline – there were some clear parallels to the way social media was used during the Arab Spring and how Williams’ fictional characters decide to harness the likes of Twitter and Facebook to attempt to overthrow the brutal regime. However, this is a work of fiction and the fact that those similarities quickly break down under closer examination doesn’t particularly detract from the book, as far as I’m concerned. As long as Williams’ world persuaded me to suspend my disbelief for the duration of the novel, then I was more than happy to go along with the proposition that various staged gaming events could pose significant problems for a military regime unaccustomed to dealing with flash mobs.

I also found the violent response all too believable – along with the evident ramping of tension, consequences and costs. Another feature of this book I thoroughly approve of – is that when people die, it is treated as a major event that leaves everyone shaken and upset. There are still the gamers and their response to what is going on – although it did occur to me that if you hadn’t first read This Is Not A Game, you may be slightly scratching your head at their appearance, which is a lot more piecemeal and less coherent in this novel. However, unlike many series, I do think that you could comfortably read Deep State without having read the first Dagmar Shaw adventure.

All in all, this is an entertaining slice of near-future action that may have some similarities with totalitarian regimes and their reluctant populations. However, I don’t recommend it on the grounds that it has any political significance – I’m not convinced enough that Williams’ has sufficiently nailed the underlying tensions and sheer complexity of Turkish society for that to be the case. But as an enjoyable piece of fiction, it is certainly worth reading – and is far more than a placeholder that second volumes all too frequently end up being.

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