RUBICON by J.S. Dewes

RUBICON by J.S. Dewes

Military Sci-Fi with an Edge of Tomorrow Twist

J.S. Dewes's RUBICON kicks off a new military sci-fi series with a compelling premise, a strong lead, and lots of action. The novel's qualities are hampered by all the elements it's missing, though, delivering an incomplete world and reader experience.

“Sergeant Adriene Valero wants to die. She can’t.”

J.S. Dewe’s Rubicon centers on Adriene Valero, a human soldier caught up in a war against an inhuman machine race called the Mechan. Though a disposable asset like any military grunt, Valero’s people have developed a technology that subverts death. 

Whenever killed in action—by the enemy, or intentional friendly fire—her mind, and those of her fellow soldiers, are recalled across the stars to “rezone” in a fresh, lab grown body. In short order, they’re back on the front lines, ready to fight—and die—again. And again, and again.

Adriene Valero has rezoned into her 96th new body when military command calls her up from her meat grinder of a division to an elite exploration force, one equipped with better gear, highly advanced tech, and significantly lower casualty rates. Injected into the 505th division’s recon team as their new “pathfinder”, Valero must navigate social dynamics far different from her old squad, amongst a group of people who legitimately care about each other and the work, and who are largely opposed to getting killed whenever possible.

And that’s a culture shock for Valero because, over the course of 96 rezones, she’s disconnected heavily from people and her own sense of humanity. Rezoning is never a pleasant process, but it’s getting worse for her, and her latest “husk” doesn’t feel right on her. With the overwhelming apathy generated by her recyclable existence, she longs to escape enlisted immortality for a chance to live and die, permanently, on some quiet planet.

Worse, Valero knows intimately the additional cost of their rezone tech. Their enemies, the Mechan, utilize a merciless device called a crucible to hijack their rezone chip and “hybridize” their minds. She was captured, once, her body turned into a meat puppet controlled by the Mechan, her mind a silently screaming backseat driver until they let her body die of starvation. 

The threat of hybridization requires soldiers to “zero” each other out during combat, killing their friends and fellows to avoid capture, so they can rezone into new husks with their minds (mostly) in tact.

Valero’s apathy is intensified by the immense trauma of hybridization and constant rezones. But those traumas also make her the perfect candidate for a new kind of upgrade. The 505’s high survival rate is due in part to a virtual intelligence augmentation, Rubicon, a kind of networked digital assistant physically installed in their heads to interface directly with their minds. 

Given her experience with Mechan hybridization, the required installation of Rubicon provides little comfort to Valero. But when a recon mission goes dangerously sideways, she discovers her Rubicon hides a number of unique advantages and abilities. 

Soon, with growing connection to both her squad and the virtual mind sharing space in her brain, she finds herself with a mysterious benefactor and a clandestine mission. Valero might be finding something to live for—just as she’s pitted against a danger much larger and more insidious than she could have imagined.

What Works

Dewes’s previously published novels, The Last Watch and The Exiled Fleet (books 1 & 2 of The Divide series) land in a similar military sci-fi wheelhouse as Rubicon. But where The Divide series leans towards space opera, with strong found family vibes and optimism in the face of calamity, Rubicon is grittier, more cynical, more dystopian. The action is bloodier and more traumatic, even with the threat of permadeath mostly off the table. Combat and exploration sequences are exciting and visceral.

The Divide series is notable for Dewes’s distinct cinematic worldbuilding, with strange and dynamic sci-fi set pieces so fully realized you sometimes forget you’re reading and not watching the story. The first half of Rubicon features several of those movie-real environments, settings fascinating enough you want to explore them further, yet grim enough that you’re grateful to escape. 

Adriene Valero makes for a compelling and complex central character. She is the story’s sole (third person) POV, wrapping the plot in her pursuit of a final release from duty, to serve and be allowed to die. Large portions of the novel depict her struggle with trauma and disconnection, especially when events trigger painful flashbacks that sometimes interfere with her waking life, social connections and job performance. But she is, of course, more than her trauma — she’s strong-willed, loyal, competent, and adaptable. There’s an evolution here, of a broken-yet-functional grunt learning to care, connect, even love again. 

And a big part of that process is Rubicon, the VI cohabiting her brain and body. The rest of the 505 have Rubicon, too, but Valero’s quickly levels up from dry robo assistant to snarky-but-sincere sidekick. If you enjoy shared-mind or human-plus-AI tropes, with a strong helping of sarcasm, you’re going to love Rubicon and this sort-of central pairing.

Sci-fi action fans are bound to dig the 505’s Starship Troopers-esque “hard suits”, the militarized tech, the weirdness of the Mechans, and the ship and planetside environments. But there’s plenty of emotional crunch to the novel, a lot of gray morality to navigate, and even a burgeoning romance to anchor the tale’s emotional core.

What Doesn’t Work

Rubicon suffers from an issue I see as increasingly common in sci-fi and fantasy fiction: a reliance on the audience’s preceding familiarity with the conceits of the genre. Dewes throws a lot of science fiction stuff at the reader with little explanation or extrapolation. 

From tools like the clear-enough from context but entirely nebulous “overwatch”, to weapons like the “coil gun” (it’s powered, it’s heavy, it shoots, that’s it), to the hey-audiences-understand-what-a-spaceship-is military vessels, Rubicon counts on the reader to plug in a ton of material from their previous sci-fi consumptions. Easy enough for the veteran genre reader, but probably daunting for a SFF rookie or someone who only flirts with the genre, the net effect is a kind of generic setting. 

Even the Mechans, the ostensible but not really primary antagonists, feel like an unfinished sketch. They’re robots, they’re super tough, they have a hive mind, they use crucibles. There are some cool sequences with them, but there’s nothing particularly exciting about them. After some early action beats, they largely shift to the background.

In a similar way, most of the characters beyond Valero, and her doctor love interest Carl Daroga, feel two dimensional, a short collection of traits and mannerisms that don’t amount to real people. Even the endearing squadmate Kato is just a swirl of charming quirks with little identity. It often feels like these people don’t really exist when they’re not in Valero’s line of site. We have no idea what any of them want in life, or what they do when she’s not around. And, despite how much time we spend on their spaceship, we never see what any of them do there. They hang out at the bar, or they go on missions. The rest of their existence is a mundane mystery.

The true crime of the novel is how little the titular Rubicon is actually present. The virtual assistant turned full-fledged artificial intelligence improves every scene its in, and the evolution of its relationship with Valero is the best part of the story. Perhaps Dewes worried about over-relying on Rubicon and its associated tropes, so the AI spends much of the novel being activated and deactivated, sitting out many significant character moments and some of the most important plot sequences.

The absence is more frustrating because some of Valero and Rubicon’s emotional development feels unearned, because we don’t see enough of it on the page. The author hand-waves away several months of missions and interactions, shortcutting a potential soggy middle, but also some of the fun-and-games moments that would have made this strange friendship (and Rubicon’s burgeoning sentience) feel real. 

This novel shares some DNA with The Divide series (and, plausibly, Martha Wells’s genre-redefining MurderBot series), in that it relies heavily on the “competence porn” trope. Everybody is really good at what they do, a previously inconceivable solution is always available to the protagonist, and moments of duress deliver more snark than tension. 

Competence porn as a trope or subgenre can be immensely satisfying when well executed—The Last Watch excelled in this department, though The Exiled Fleet showed diminishing returns. In Rubicon, it’s just the default state of things: super easy, barely an inconvenience (oh really?!). Until the novel’s conclusion, that is… 

Rubicon also fails, to some degree, to deliver on the “promise of the premise”. Though the tagline of “Live. Die. Reboot.” describes its reality well enough (while intentionally conjuring Edge of Tomorrow vibes), there isn’t a whole lot of rebooting going on here. You’re not going to get a bunch of Groundhog’s Day-ing in this story. And that’s okay! It’s just not how it was pitched.

All of the plot’s twists and turns are heavily telegraphed and familiar. I didn’t find many surprises (outside of that ending). I really dislike when a character drops a big revelation that’s treated as so revolutionary that nobody else in-universe perceived it, yet its so obvious I can’t imagine every third person already positing it as a theory. The Mechan objective is just right there, people, it shouldn’t take an elite operative to sort it out.

Fandom Potential

Rubicon is likely to fracture its audience loyalty between ecstatic five-star fans and readers who feel betrayed by its curveball, cliffhanger ending. It’s clearly meant to start a series, with “A Crucible Cycle novel” right on the cover, but it was marketed like it was standalone novel. That left a lot of confused, dissatisfied early readers who might not continue on with a sequel.

Still, J.S. Dewes’s Divide series is building a fandom quickly and deservedly, and I think Rubicon has the potential legs to build longterm fan loyalty, too. But plenty of series have been made or broken with their sequels, so I think the jury is still out there.

All three of her books have strong series-television pacing and visualization that would make them obvious choices for adaption. Rubicon is less accessible than The Divide books, but it’s not hard sci-fi, either. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think the novel has enough characters the audience will really care about to find and cling to their faves. Valero is not as interesting as Adequin Rake from The Divide series, and Rubicon is not as endearing as its obvious point of comparison, MurderBot. Shippers might find their fandom anchor with the pairing Valero and Daroga, but get ready for that to be really complicated in the sequel…

Is it a keeper? Would I read it again? 

As a standalone? Probably not. But I’ll hold onto it until the sequel drops, and see how the continued story informs my appreciation for the series.

Final Thoughts

Rubicon is pretty engrossing for the first two-thirds of its slightly-too-long page run, but underwhelms in the third act. There are some promising big ideas here, and a few distinctly rad action playsets. But its identity isn’t fully formed, and it remains to be seen how the premise holds up across a series. 

Rubicon

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Picture of Adron Buske

Adron Buske

Adron Buske (he/him) is the founder of FICTIONS & FANDOMS, and hosts FICTITIOUS, a podcast about the storytelling craft of science fiction and fantasy. An avid cross-genre reader, he prefers thought-provoking, character driven stories with complex moralities, well-developed worlds, diverse characters, and big adventures. Some favorite books: American Gods (Neil Gaiman), The Wolf in the Whale (Jordanna Max Brodsky), The Murderbot Diaries (Martha Wells), and The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern).
Picture of Adron Buske

Adron Buske

Adron Buske (he/him) is the founder of FICTIONS & FANDOMS, and hosts FICTITIOUS, a podcast about the storytelling craft of science fiction and fantasy. An avid cross-genre reader, he prefers thought-provoking, character driven stories with complex moralities, well-developed worlds, diverse characters, and big adventures. Some favorite books: American Gods (Neil Gaiman), The Wolf in the Whale (Jordanna Max Brodsky), The Murderbot Diaries (Martha Wells), and The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern).

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