No Return by Zachary Jernigan

No ReturnTitle: No Return
Author: Zachary Jernigan
Published: 5 March 2013
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Rating: 7/10

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.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
First published 2012; published by Crown on 11 February 2014
science fiction
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Mark Watney is on the Ares 3 Mars mission with 5 other crew members when they’re forced to abort because of a devastating sandstorm. But before Mark can get to safety, he’s swept away by a dust storm and left injured and unconscious. His biomonitor is damaged, so the crew have every reason to believe he’s dead and are forced to leave without him.

Mark wakes up and manages to save himself, but finds himself in rather bleak circumstances:

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah. I’m fucked.

In addition to this he’s also working in very delicate circumstances, in a very hostile environment, so the slightest mistake or oversight could kill him too.

But none of it deters Mark. He immediately focuses on survival, finding unexpected solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. His goal is to survive until the next Mars mission. In four years.

Meanwhile, at NASA, an undervalued engineer notices that the satellite picture of the Ares 3 site show unexplained signs of movement…

This sounds like it could be extremely boring – one lone man going about the very practical business of surviving on Mars without even the drama of aliens or something? Sounds too much like a documentary. But it works. Not just works, actually –  it’s also interesting, tense, exciting, funny, and emotional. It doesn’t need aliens because surviving alone on Mars is insane enough. It does drag at times, but it still manages to be a more entertaining read than many books that have a lot more to work with.

So, what makes it good? Mark’s character plays a huge role in that. One of the reasons he has a chance of surviving on Mars is that he’s an amazing problem solver, and a large portion of the book is devoted to the mission logs where he describes how he survives. This sounds like one of the most potentially boring parts, but even as someone who hates the rigour of hard sf, I found it very interesting and impressive. He specifically states that he’ll explain how Mars missions work just in case a layman reads his logs, and he sticks to that style throughout.

Mark is a botanist and engineer, so it’s not long before he’s figured out how make water FROM SCRATCH and turn his habitat into a potato farm. He sorts out his air supply and modifies his rover for long-distance travel. On the downside, he also turns his habitat into a bomb and causes an explosion by breathing, but that’s all just part of the thrills of life on Mars. In many ways, this book provides a basic education on how complicated and dangerous space travel is.

I couldn’t tell you how accurate it all is, but it certainly gives the impression of being completely accurate, which, for sf fans like myself, is really all that matters. Admittedly I didn’t always understand exactly what Mark was doing, but the how and why are easy to understand and that’s good enough. Yes, there’s a ton of science and maths, but Mark keeps it manageable.

The other thing that helps Mark survive and make the book readable is his sense of humour. He’s always making little jokes or framing his life-threatening endeavours in amusing ways. It keeps the tone light, keeps Mark motivated, and is often laugh-out-loud funny. I love how he complains that he’s stuck with disco music and crappy 70s sitcoms for entertainment, and how he explains that, according to international law, he is in fact a space pirate. This kind of stuff is is essential. His story could be very depressing and the realism of it suggests that Mark could die before being rescued. The humour saves it from that fate.

It could also be bogged down by Mark’s emotional and physical suffering but, thankfully, there’s very little of that. Most of Mark’s narrative is made up of mission logs, which means he chooses how to describe his experience. He focuses on his methods of survival, throws in a lot of perfectly justified bitching, and makes jokes, but he very rarely feels sorry for himself or wallows in the wretchedness of his situation. If anything, he survives because he’s the kind of person who doesn’t fall into that trap. It’s quite possible that he gets depressed and maudlin, but he doesn’t make the reader suffer through that too.

Another thing that makes this a good book narratively, is that it’s very well paced. We alternate nicely between dilemmas and triumphs, between great worry and huge relief. When Mark’s narrative starts to get a bit tiring, we suddenly go back to Earth where an observant engineer realises that Mark is still alive. That adds another dimension to the story, and from then on we move back and forth between NASA and Mars. It becomes quite a page-turner.

It did drag for a bit in the middle though. When I hit the halfway point I was so ready for Mark to be rescued, and I was a bit depressed by how much book I still had to get through. After a while though, the story climbs out of the rut and gets interesting again, as we move closer to what will either be Mark’s rescue or his death.

There is one thing I wondered about that the novel only mentions in passing – the public’s reaction to the cost of saving Mark. It costs tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to save one man (albeit a highly intelligent and skilled man whose experience constitutes unprecedented research). On the one hand, it’s an incredible story and people all over the world are following closely and hoping for a happy ending. I was hoping desperately for a happy ending too. On the other hand, it seems easier to get money and resources for this than, say, public health care, housing for the poor, environmental protection, etc. It’s mentioned that people start asking how much is too much, but that’s really all the book has to say about it.

Admittedly though, that issue might have hindered rather than helped what is already a (mostly) excellent story. I’ve heard that the movie rights have been sold and I think this would be fantastic on the big screen – all the tension and humour of the book, with a stunning visual component. That’d also complete the indie-dream that is this book – it started out as a free story on the author’s website, then he sold a Kindle version on Amazon for 99c, it got picked up by a major publisher, and film rights were sold. How awesome is that? But deservedly so. Well done Andy Weir 🙂