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Character Corner: Annabel Scheme by Robin Sloan

Annabel Scheme

This is a book with a history that deserves some brief explanation, as it’s a great example of an author using social media technologies in an innovative way to both write and publish a book. You can read more on his website, but the short version is that Robin Sloan used the website Kickstarter both to raise money to support the writing of the book as well as to develop a pre-book-launch fan base and community around the book. This is brilliant, and at least in Sloan’s case, wildly successful.

It helps that Sloan is also a talented writer. Alas, no social media technology is going to help you with that. The book itself isn’t available at Barnes & Noble, but I don’t feel bad about reviewing it here because you can download it for yourself from Sloan’s website under a Creative Commons license.

The story itself is a funny, inventive adventure, a heady admixture of occult and cyberpunk themes. A strange combination, but Sloan makes it work. The result is what you might get if Neal Stephenson and Christopher Moore teamed up on a book. Sort of ”Snow Crash meets Practical Demonkeeping.” I give it two and a half stars; I’d give it more, but it has some weaknesses that drag it down.

The book includes a number of glosses over existing technology and brand names, with Sloan giving roman a clefs to icons such as Google and World of Warcraft. And I have to say, he uses those very smoothly. I recently read Libba Bray’s new book Going Bovine which does the same thing. In Bray’s case they felt forced, almost as though her publisher was afraid of actually mentioning Star Wars and other pop-culture trademarks by name. They were awkward enough to impact the story, and they made me wonder if her publisher made her do that. In Sloan’s case he obviously re-branded those icons on his own initiative, and he makes them work very well. They felt integral to Annabel Scheme in a way that the renamings in Going Bovine didn’t.

The book does have some shortcomings. One, it’s short. It’s properly a novella, not a full novel, which kind of sucked because it was enough fun that I wanted it to be longer. Two, the writing is quite rough around the edges. So rough in a couple of places that it pulled me out of the story. This is a book that needed an editor, but didn’t get one. [Full disclosure: I know this because I thought the project was so cool I offered to edit this book in exchange for a credit. But c’est la vie, that never happened.] However, despite the book’s shortcomings, the story and Sloan’s fast-paced style combine to overcome them and create a wildly entertaining result.

Still, this is Character Corner, so what about the book’s central actors?

Annabel Scheme

The book’s eponymous main character, Annabel Scheme, is a private investigator specializing in “digital and occult” investigations. Sloan uses the device of a secondary narrator character (see below) to keep the reader out of the main character’s head. This was a great choice because it helped build a deeper sense of mystery around the main character herself. We could be credibly surprised by her actions, because the narrator was also surprised by them.

Annabel Scheme definitely fits the Sherlock Holmes-ian model of an investigator as person with almost encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of things, with lots of skills and tricks of the trade that aren’t themselves magical but take on that aura to someone who has never been exposed to them before. Oh, and gadgets. She has a lot of very clever gadgets. It is a somewhat stereotyped concept for a private eye, but again, Sloan does a great job with it.

I have only two significant complaints about Scheme herself. First, she is perhaps too well connected. That is, she always knows who to go to for information, and they’re always happy to see her. She has extensive and very convenient history with some of the plot’s central figures. It’s fine to do that sort of thing here and there, but in this case it felt like too much to me. I felt like Sloan’s default choice when facing his protagonist with an obstacle or challenge was to reach into the grab-bag of “well, who can I have her be connected with that can tell her what she needs.”

It undermines her as a character because she isn’t so much overcoming obstacles herself as asking other people here and there to do it for her. There’s nothing wrong with bringing in other characters to help with things, but there’s a balance to it that I feel is missing here. It would have been nice, now and then, for one of her sources to stonewall her or something. Make her work harder for her victories.

My second complaint has to do with plausible motivation. There’s a point fairly early on in the book where one mystery is resolved, her client’s question has been answered, and the book by all rights and norms in the detective story game, ought to end. But, Scheme has this notion that something else is going on too, so she keeps investigating. Yes, that’s necessary for the plot to continue, but it had me scratching my head. Why is she doing this? At this point, nobody’s paying her. She’s diving headlong into various dangers, embroiling herself in some deep mire, for what reason?

You can’t read this book without concluding that Robin Sloan is a clever and very inventive guy. I know he could have come up with a genuine motivation for her to continue, or re-worked the original mystery to encompass the whole plot, but he didn’t, and it undermines both the character and the book.


Hugin-19, or simply Hu, is the book’s narrator. I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything by saying this, but Hu is a computer. You learn this in chapter 2. The picture Sloan paints, and that the reader works with, is very much like Hiro Protagonist’s AI sidekick from Snow Crash.

In that context, at many points Hu’s thoughts and attitudes felt overly human to me. His grasp of human emotion, intuitive leaps, and a variety of other things struck me as out of character.

However, there’s a twist in store about Hu, one I won’t reveal because that WOULD be a spoiler. The thing about this twist is that in many ways it retroactively justifies Hu’s overly-human thoughts and attitudes. It doesn’t leave the reader with the greatest feeling; it’s like I’ve gone through this whole book with this gripe about a central character, and then at the end I get this “oh, NOW you tell me?” moment.

I was immediately reminded of Justine Larbalestier’s book Liar, which includes a similar twist about the underlying nature of the narrator. However, in Liar’s case I didn’t wish I’d known the twist sooner.

They say you learn something from every book you read, and what I learned from the portrayal of Hu in Annabel Scheme is this: if you’re going to have some type of identity-based twist about a character, you need to construct that character’s thoughts, speech, attitudes, and actions in the pages before the twist is revealed very carefully. They must fit both with what the reader initially thinks about the character and with what the character actually turns out to be.

In Liar and Annabel Scheme alike, after the twist is revealed you can look back and say to yourself “oh, now I understand about why the character does such-and-such.” The difference is that in Liar, I wasn’t left feeling that those actions were out of character at the time they happened.

To Sum Up

Robin Sloan is a wickedly smart, inventive writer who will be great someday. He’s rough around the edges now (and I’m happy to make him that same offer on his next book), but he’ll get over that. He has a wonderful flair for inventive leaps that feel perfectly natural. I hope he continues writing in a similar cyber-punkish vein, because he has a great grasp on technology and what I feel are very incisive views on future-tech.

At the risk of dating myself, I am reminded of Max Headroom’s “20 minutes into the future” tagline, a feeling Sloan captures marvelously in this novella. And I cannot help but be amused to note that one of Max Headroom’s creator’s was also named Annabel.

All in all, despite its flaws I enjoyed Annabel Scheme immensely. Download it today and give it a read.

December 22, 2009 19:08 UTC

Tags: character corner, book review, Robin Sloan, Annabel Scheme, motivation, identity, twist

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