Reckless Sleep is set in a near-future world devastated by global eco-terrorism, where tectonic collapse, uncontrolled volcanic eruptions, and release of radioactive waste have made life almost unlivable. In this doomed environment, people turn increasingly to drugs and Virtual Reality games for escape, while the governments of the world try desperately to find some way to save the human race.
Most of the world's hope has been invested in the plan to colonize an Earthlike planet called Dirangesept. When the first expedition ends in disaster, highly-trained soldiers called Far Warriors are sent to re-take the planet. Mind-linked to autoid combat machines which they control from orbit around the planet, the Far Warriors are thought to be invincible. But the savage protectors of the planet--sentient creatures that look like mythological beasts, though everyone who encounters them sees them differently--make short work of the machines. Identifying totally with their autoids, the Far Warriors suffer the machines' destruction as if it were their own. Irreparably scarred in mind and body, they return in defeat to a world that blames them for their failure.
As the novel opens, Jon Sciler, a former Far Warrior as damaged as most but more functional than many, signs up for a games test program at a mysterious Virtual Reality games company called Wanderers of the Maze. Because of the need to remotely control complex machines, the Far Warriors were all accomplished games-players, and Maze is focusing its testing efforts on them. At the same time, Jon hooks up with a student named Chrye Roffe, who is doing a thesis on Far Warriors and wants to make him part of her research.
As Jon explores Maze's gamezones--one of them so authentic he thinks it might be a genuine alternate reality--Chrye finds herself more and more attracted to this damaged, paranoid man. When he tells her that someone at Maze is murdering the Far Warrior testers, she believes him, and together, they set out to discover who the killer is. But as a Far Warrior himself, Jon too is marked for death. He must find a way not just to solve the mystery, but to save his own life.
At first glance, there isn't much new in Reckless Sleep. The devastated near-future world with its drugs and diseases and cults, the VR zones so well-designed they seem real, the edgy hero, the near-magical technology: we've seen it all before. A contrived, cyber-noir prologue and initial chapters in which too much seems to be happening too fast don't help matters. But this appearance of derivativeness is (like much else in the book) illusion. Very quickly the narrative settles down, and Reckless Sleep becomes a gripping and unconventional examination of reality, Virtual and otherwise, and of a wounded psyche working its way back to wholeness.
The narrative moves back and forth between the grimness of the real world and the seductively beautiful Virtual world of Cathar, the gamezone Jon is helping to test. Levy has a gift for mood and atmosphere: these two settings, and the contrast between them, are powerfully evoked. Dirangesept, which shares qualities of both worlds--the beauty of Cathar, the violence of the outside world--is also very vivid, surprisingly so considering that it never appears in the book's real-time narrative, but only through the memory of the various characters. It needs to be vivid, though, for it occupies an iconic place in the minds of nearly everyone in the book, and in the wider consciousness of the world as well, as a symbol of Earth's failed hope.
Dirangesept is also the book's real mystery. The other questions--the purpose of the murders, the identity of the murderer, the possible reality of Cathar--are in a sense red herrings, for each of them turns out to be a different aspect of the larger question of Dirangesept's true nature and significance. The answers are revealed in bits and pieces over the course of the narrative; Levy keeps us guessing all the way, adroitly blurring the lines between Virtual and actual, putting the reality of nearly everything in the book in question at some point. It's a lot of elements to juggle, but Levy interweaves them all with a skill not always found even in the work of more established writers. If a few questions remain at the end, that's okay: one of Reckless Sleep's strengths is the way it plays with readers' expectations.
On the cover of Reckless Sleep, Levy is called "a sensational new voice in world SF". It's rare that this kind of hype can be taken literally, but in this case it's entirely appropriate.