What a terrific premise, I thought, when I read the book description. A secret society--the Incrementalists--has existed for all of human history and they "meddle" with people with a goal of bettering society. Sometimes that works out well, sometimes not. Incrementalists have finite bodies, but their memories and wisdom are immortal, because they are "stubbed" into a new recruited Incrementalist.
Celeste, Phil's lover for the last 400 years, give or take, has died in her physical body and Phil chooses user interface designer Renée, called "Ren," as his recruit to receive Celeste's stub. He finds himself falling for Ren, which is nice for them, except that Celeste's personality wants to rampage to the forefront, not only of Ren, but all the Incrementalists.
I was thinking I'd be reading an adventure through the history of Incrementalists meddling in history. Aside from a couple of brief asides, that didn't happen. Disappointment number one. The story is almost entirely focused on battling Celeste and following the progress of Phil and Ren's burgeoning relationship. That turned out to be disappointment number two, because the characters of Phil, Ren and the several other Incrementalists brought into the story were shallow and uninteresting. Celeste was the most vibrant character, which is not much of a compliment considering she was supposed to be dead.
The story's focus was also a disappointment because author Stephen Brust never makes us understand that there is much at stake in the battle against Celeste. I think we're supposed to believe that there are huge consequences for not only Phil, Ren and the other Incrementalists, but all of humankind. But I never saw that there was all that much at stake because the Incrementalists' work was never described in anything but vague and fleeting terms.
Something might have been salvaged if the Phil/Ren story had been engaging, but the characters lacked both substance and chemistry, and the couple of TMI sex scenes were a big turn-off.
And now we come to the biggest disappointment of all: the audiobook narration. Because the story is told in alternating chapters by Phil and Ren, the audiobook includes a male reader and a female reader. Ray Porter, reading as Phil, uses a consistently PO'd, hard-boiled and aggressive voice, which was unappealing and didn't feel at all right for the character. Mary Robinette Kowal, reading as Ren, has an insubstantial, almost Valley Girl voice, which is also unsuited to what is supposed to be a strong female character. Her reading of male voices is awful to the level of being cringeworthy. I felt sorry for the authors that these voices were used for the story, because they were so wrong for what I felt was the flavor and style they'd been going for.
What's more, in the audiobook there are many inconsistencies and errors. The book contains dialogue by characters other than Phil and Renée, and each of the leads must also speak that dialogue. Bizarrely, when Porter, reading Phil's chapters, speaks as the character Oskar, he uses a (bad) Russian-ish accent, while Kowal, reading Ren's chapters, uses no accent. When she speaks Jimmy's lines, she uses a (bad) French-ish accent, but Porter does not. Kowal mispronounces several words and, inexplicably, both readers consistently pronounce the name Ramon as "Raymond." Considering the high prices charged for audiobooks, it seems inexcusable to me to have such slipshod production values as to allow miscast and, in Kowal's case, poor voices, but especially so many inconsistencies and errors.