This is the kind of book I find quite daunting to review. It’s differs from the norm, has a ton of worldbuilding, detailed plots, and plenty of character issues, all of which are hard to sum up in a review. I also happen to like it quite a bit, so add to that the task of making it look as good as I thought it was.
On the world of Jeroun, the existence of god is an absolute certainty. The deity Adrash, clad in divine armour, floats in orbit above the planet, trying to answer the ultimate question – “Return to Jeroun as mankind’s redeemer, or cleanse the world of mankind forever.”
After twenty thousand years trying to change human nature, Adrash is inclined to destroy them. As an expression of his dissatisfaction he created the Needle – a line of spheres hanging in orbit above the planet. Humanity knows the spheres are weapons, and Adrash once threw two of them down to Jeroun in an event known as the Cataclysm.
Thus, Adrash’s dilemma is of equal importance to humanity, and society has been shaped by the question of how to address it. Adrashi sects believe Adrash is benevolent and the world can be saved by worshipping him. Anadrashi sects believe the god is their enemy and they need to place their faith in mankind. Each believes that the other puts the world in danger, so Adrashi and Anadrashi frequently express their faith by fighting each other, sometimes to the death. And now, as the world approaches the midpoint of the millenium, fighters from across the continent are travelling to the city of Danoor to take part in an epic tournament, where competitors will all fight to the death. The winner will take home money and fame, but will also have the chance to make a speech that will have major religious influence.
Vedas Tezul is a highly skilled Anadrashi fighter from the Thirteenth Order of Black Suits in the city of Golna. Although he hasn’t left Golna since he was a child, the master of his order sends him to Danoor to compete in the tournament. Joining Vedas on the 3-month long journey is Berun, a constructed man whose powerful body is composed entirely of spheres, allowing him to change shape. Berun is not interested in money or religion, but he’s passionate about fighting. Along the way they are joined by Churls, a woman who has developed her own deadly technique with a blunt sword, and who could use the tournament winnings to pay off her many debts.
Of course, road trips typically symbolise and provide the opportunity for personal journeys, which is certainly the case for our three companions. Vedas is struggling with issues about his faith. Shortly before leaving, one of his young students was killed in a street battle with the Adrashi, and it’s not the first time he’s seen a child killed in a religious fight. He should be able to just shrug it off, but he finds it deeply disturbing. Now that he’s away from the Order with nothing to do but hike all day he starts to question not just his faith but the things that he and others do in the name of faith. Churls’s presence also raises the awkward problem of sexual attraction. She is attracted to him but keeps a respectful distance because they tend to antagonise each other. Vedas, at any rate, is a virgin who imposed a strict monk-like lifestyle on himself and it’s only now that he’s starting to realise how odd this is.
I really like the way Jernigan externalises this conflict in the black elder-cloth suit. All the Anadrashi warriors wear this suit (Adrashi wear white) and it’s made from the skin of elder corpses. The elders are extinct but their bodies do not rot, are magical and highly valuable – the bones are ground to dust and used as currency or drugs, and their skin is used to make cloth and leather. Elder-cloth suits like the one Vedas has forms itself to the wearer, regulates temperature, protects the body, assists with minor biological functions and can grow horn armour according to the wearer’s wishes. The wearer never needs to take it off, and Vedas has been wearing his for the past 20 years. So on the one hand, Vedas’s suit has become a part of him, while also representing his faith and function. Berun however, is unimpressed and sees Vedas as “half-finished… like a man who had never become comfortable in his own skin”. And this of course is true too, because Vedas is increasingly at odds with the person he’s become.
Berun’s insights seem remarkably perceptive for an automaton, but he was created by a famously brilliant wizard, so he’s more sophisticated than other constructed creatures. Still, he is tormented by questions of his own individuality and freedom. His creator is supposedly dead, but Berun is not sure if he is still somehow controlled by his creator, if he’s been programmed to behave in certain ways. He’s been having dreams in which he’s told to kill Vedas, but although he doesn’t particularly like the man, he sees no reason to murder him either, and battles to be his own person, not his creator’s puppet. Churls, besides grappling with her awkward attraction to Vedas, is haunted by her secrets. Literally so, in the case of her daughter’s ghost, who possesses some odd powers.
All this is enough story for one novel, but in fact I’ve only described half the plot. On another part of the continent, two eldermen scholars (elder-human hybrids) are caught up in a power struggle over the Academy of Applied Magics. The Academy is the only institution on Jeroun devoted to outbound magic, which is essentially space travel. With spells, alchemy, and elder-skin suits, outbound mages can make individual journeys into space, and see Adrash hovering silently above the planet. Which is exactly what Ebn, head of the academy and one of the world’s most powerful mages did. Driven by desire for Adrash, she approached him, with disastrous consequences, and has now taken it upon herself to prove humanity’s worth to him.
She’s also silently in love with the younger elderman Pol, who lives with her in an odd domestic arrangement. Pol however is decidedly gay and more inclined to murder Ebn and take her place than have sex with her. He has no choice but to comply with her current plan to please Adrash, but in the meantime he has his own ideas for empowering himself.
The outbound mages bring me to one of the most interesting aspects of the book – the way Jernigan has made science and magic indistinguishable. I wouldn’t know whether to call this science fiction or fantasy because the way he writes his tech makes those categories irrelevant. Alchemy and spells have the feel of chemistry and engineering. A dragon launches mages into orbit. A cyborg is created by a wizard. A god cracks humanity from iron eggs.
And it’s fantastic stuff. No Return leaves you with the sense that you’ve just read something rare and exotic, and the satisfying suggestion that there can be much, much more.
But I would argue that there is such a thing as too much awesome, and that is the problem with No Return. There’s so much going on that I can’t even scratch the surface of it in this review. It’s overwhelming. Even though I love all the characters, the story, the tech/magic and other worldbuilding, a lot of it could use more page-time, more in-depth exploration. The novel is the first in a series, but I have to wonder if it was initially meant to be a standalone because if feels like Jernigan threw everything he had into it, with no hope of a sequel. And I guess that’s actually possible, given that it was published just before Night Shade Books did their much-discussed crash-and-burn. There are enough ideas here for an entire trilogy or more, and enough plot for two novels.
Both the Vedas/Churls/Berun and Ebn/Pol stories are interesting, but except for the concerns about Adrash, they have absolutely nothing to do with each other and they never intersect. The novel also opens with a glimpse of a society of mindless immortals that no one knows exists and never comes into play, then ends with what is basically a novella about Adrash. All great reading, but it lacks cohesion. Perhaps the structure of the story was supposed to mirror the Needle or Berun’s body, both of which are seen as whole but composed of many individual spheres. If so, I’m not sure if that was a good idea. I enjoyed reading it, and it didn’t bother me too much but something doesn’t feel quite right.
I would have preferred a more streamlined novel, with more in-depth focus on certain elements. The novel relies very heavily on infodumping, perhaps because it’s the author’s first, but perhaps partly because he doesn’t have the room to flesh things out. Similarly, some of the character development – especially with Vedas – seemed to come more from descriptions of psychological states rather than behaviour. Then, near the end, the epic tournament that Vedas, Churls and Berun spent the whole novel travelling for turned out to be a major disappointment.
That said, I would love to read more stories set in this amazing world. Preferably stories that are given their own space, but either way, more please. Even a collection of short stories would be cool, about the origins of the mindless immortals who live on elder corpses, the Baleshuuk who mine elder corpses, the days when humans still knew how to navigate the ensorcelled ocean teeming with monsters, the story of Churls and her daughter, Berun and his creator, and Adrash, Adrash, Adrash. After reading N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy I’ve realised how much I love stories of complicated gods who are as much human as they are divine, and the sections about Adrash were some of my favourite in the book.
According to the author’s website, the second (and final) book is entitled A Shower of Stones and will be published in 2015, by Night Shade Books. I look forward to it.
A note on the cover: a bit of whitewashing there, assuming that guy is Vedas, because he’s supposed to be very dark skinned.