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Nethereal (Soul Cycle Book 1) Kindle Edition
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And this is the author's first novel. I'm hardly an expert, but I was extremely impressed.
What's key here is the richness of the author's creation. This isn't just an imagined future. Earth is nowhere to be seen, past or present. Brian has created an entire cosmos with its own rules, exotic physics, and even more exotic metaphysics. Half-sentient FTL starships are guided by telepathic pilots who are more partner than master--and can be eaten by the mysterious Wheel if they break the complex rules of steersmanship. The gulf between life and death that we experience here is paper-thin in this ancient cosmos long abandoned by its own gods. Half of your crew might actually be dead men--and you have to look close to tell which is which.
The plot is difficult to discuss without giving too much away. There are constant twists and turns, which sometimes expand to a Byzantine complexity that may be the book's primary (though not critical) flaw. One of the few remaining members of an immortal race searches this strange cosmos for clues about his father's fate and the titanic starship his father designed, on a mysterious mission that eventually takes Jaren Peregrine and his peculiar crew to the center of Hell itself. Strap in and enjoy the ride. I've never seen anything quite like it in my 50-odd years of reading SFF.
This probably seems like a simple thing, but I have to comment on it. I've read so much recently where authors have taken something important to their characters away to create dramatic tension only to turn around and restore it in some form or another later on to usher in warm fuzzies. They think readers want to have their cake and eat it, too, but those empty calories are some of the least satisfying things to consume in all of fiction. Brian Niemeier throws out widespread bait-and-switch tactics and gives the loss in Nethereal permanency. The answers to the introspective "How would I feel if...?" questions I ask myself as I read become so much more interesting when I don't need to default to "totally fine with it by the end of the book." That was never my reply while reading Nethereal, for the record. God forbid.
Without giving too much away, bad stuff goes down to the characters in Nethereal almost constantly. Each... incident, for lack of a better term, is sufficiently varied from the last so that repetition doesn't desensitize readers to what will come next. Predictability doesn't exist in the author's vision of hell; another pitfall that some books march directly into, Brian Niemeier sidesteps with poise and flair. I'm glad I spend my days on a little green rock called Earth, where the living nightmares I will likely never face to begin with are relatively mundane by comparison.
The author has a background in theology and his experience is reflected in his writing. Behind the impressive facade of the book's surface action, I thought I felt echoes of ideas C. S. Lewis penned in works like The Great Divorce. These bite-sized moral lessons aren't the cliché or unsubtle messages sprinkled throughout other popular media- Disney films, with their black-and-white happily ever afters, spring to mind. Rather, they're the sort of thing that readers need to search for and then step back and digest to fully appreciate. I found something a girl named Ydahl observed about the nature of hell, with regards to compassion, to be especially insightful.
On one hand, I'm not a very widely-read fan of science fiction, so I have little from the genre to compare Nethereal to. On the other hand, I now have a rubric to measure the rest of science fiction against. I am buying the sequels as soon as my budget permits.
I have just finished Brian Niemeier's Nethereal, first of the Soul Cycle. It's alright. Short Form: I liked it quite a bit, but not 18 bucks for a paperback quite a bit. Buy it here for kindle.
As usual, I'm not going to relax on the spoilers. I read the kindle version at the advice of the Wright Married Pair at Scifiwright. I did purchase it, etc. So that's how we got here.
Now my title has a parody of the Hobbit, or There and back again etc. I assure you, that the tale is much more convoluted than what I just described. Unless you are of a liberal nature, and spending money to support an author on a soulless capitalistic website like amazon is going into hell and back again. BAM.
Space Opera time.
A synopsis, Spoilers! Review after.
Our Opera begins, after Nakvin's Shadowbeast Aria, with Teg, who is shot and recovered by the mysterious figure in black, Fallon. Jaren, the pirate who hired Teg, sings of his dead father and his hatred of the guild. Teg returns, telling of the mysterious figure and saving himself, Jaren, Nakvin and Priest-acolyte Deim, with the space pirate chorus. After some hijinks, they go to a shipyard hidden in a wrecked and ruined planet. Malachai is given a brief song before hand, and in a fine tenor, declares his hatred of pirates and all enemies of the Guild and that he would hunt them like Sirius across the stars.
After the riveting Stellar Barbershop Quartet, we are treated to the Exodus, with loving musical hints to future character, Elena. The Necromancer Vaun, who is always heralded by deep Bassoons and Cellos, skulks ever in the background. Exodus is shown, descending from the ceiling, while Craighan and his soldiers have a dueling chorus against the guild singers and Malachai.
The Ship escapes, but Craighan dies. Deim and Nakvin sing their duet about Hell and Heaven, Void and Prana and magical law. Various adventures happen, and the 'Baal' Gibeah, played by famous ICP member Violent J tricks them out of their ship through a demonic Rapping Juggalo (honk) played by none other than famous ICP member Shaggy 2 Dope. They meet Sulaiman, a priest of Midras, and here played by famous Soprano, Jacob Bellavoiche. Vaun and Fallon have a 'dueling bassoons' piece and kill the remaining pirates, again. Vaun reflects 'I just wanted to be an internal decorator using internal organs.' They free the ship after Gibeah has a solo about the secrets of the ship and what he expects to find 'Greed's Fire'. This song also introduces Mephistophilis and hints at his goals. Elena is introduced after Gibeah's death and she sings the ever famous 'Ships Song' with Vaun as back up.
The next major event is their visit to Despenser, the Fifth Circle Baal. After the Momento Mori, Karun's Break Dance, each of group give up some precious part of themselves. Despenser recites poetry about the goals of Mephistophilis and the cargo that ship contains. The poetry is horrible and a good chance to go to the bathroom. The Faceless Walrus chorus almost makes up for it. Teg is now played but not voiced by Sulaiman's actor in a brilliant directorial move. The intermission is marked by Mephistophilis' villainous crooning and the most exquisite set pieces known to the operatic sphere, 'Demon's Aria'.
After the intermission (it is customary to go to the bathroom and get snacks. Popcorn being traditional) the story begins in the fifth circle of hell. Jaren meets Eldrid, who sings with him a song in an unknown language, but so full of longing that many a man of a womanly disposition has been moved to make tumblr blogs about this one song and it's thousand remixes. They meet the Gen King, and the ship is repaired. This part is marked by the many recitals of Englyns (an Olde English version of a Haiku) and trumpet calls. They take off again during Jaren's biggest song "My Father, Cubed". Mephistophilis' 'treachery', though only to Jaren and other Gen, is revealed. They escape thanks to Elena, who reveals herself to be Nakvin's daughter and kills Fallon. This leads to the heartrending 'Unknown Daughter'.
Now in base reality and not hell, Vaun and Elena sing a brother and sister duet. Vaun takes her heart, on stage and retreats to sing the 'Void Solo'. He is now played, by the end of it, by ten tenors, each deeper than the last and a second behind each other. Truly creepy. Malachai comes onto the stage again, and declares he has not had his fill of violence, nor hatred of Jaren, though they have blunted his ambition with promotions. He leaves, and Elena and her 'father' share a quiet song, ending in his death. They meet some survivors from the earlier parts of the play, now played by a Barbershop Duet, and plan to attack the guild.
Jaren, desiring to free his father, takes the ship back to hell in a stunning move to kill Mephistophilis. They ascend his temple, only to have Eldrid betray them. Mephistophilis triumphantly sings the 'Door Concerto' as part of the Orchestra. Eldrid is killed, but Jaren's father is dropped into the abyss. Here, Four songs are sung at once and in the confusion, Elena sings her a song with no name, but can be described as such: "Mother, I am complete and it should scare you". Revealed as a potentially evil goddess, they get back to the ship and return to Mithgar, where a battle between the rebels and the guild takes place. All seems hopeful for Jaren and the rebels, but Malachai returns and sings a song of triumph and violence.
The Exile, now played by an elephant, now Eleatha falls apart and the elephant is allowed to trumpet several times, knocking over stage parts. Flash photography is punishable by death during the elephant parts. The crew go to a golden stage, where they sing "End of the Mobius Strip Line". Mephistophilis arises in contempt and attacks them. Jaren and Mephistophilis kill each other and Vaun goes for the Words of Creation, which have been the goal for all parties, even if they didn't know it. Deim sings "Twenty Generations of Crazy For This Moment" and attacks him, barely succeeding in 'killing' the elephant Eleatha. Nakvin and Teg escape alive, leaving Elena. Elena sings the final song with Vaun, betraying him in the last, before escaping herself.
Thus ends the first part of the Opera. You may now leave the theatre, you're families will be returned to you once you fill out a survey. Your families will not be harmed based on the results.
I enjoyed this book as an Opera. I read it slowly and quickly in turn. Pacing was a bit of a problem, but not too much of one. Characters fell into archetypes, which I appreciated, as every character had clear or hidden agendas, and could, if called on, sing about them. The author was clearly aware of Tropes as Tropes, which lead to a certain flavor and shorthand I could appreciate. Overall, a good read, kindle money, certainly.
The story is a bit long for the shortness of the climax, which lasts quite a few less chapters than, say, the fourth circle or the early bits with the asteroid pirate hangout. Over all, I have a problem with Pacing, BUT it isn't empty pacing which is something to be proud of. There are ideas and thoughts in every chapter I find interesting. Something happens every ten pages. The sympathetic Wheel is a big one, being a direct connection between pilot and ship, especially a ship like the Exodus. The magic system was interesting, but bare bones in the good way. I was also a big fan of any of the fight scenes, which were a joy, they were tight, violent and always had something on the line. A long cutscene of fighting is grueling to the reader, something short and violent as it is here are exquisite. Thus, the book moves fast enough that boring bits can be gotten over quickly and onto something wonderful and interesting. Like Juggalo demons or fight scenes.
I deeply enjoyed the sense of unease about the ship that was constant through out. It's green eye, the corridors that weren't the same length every time and the shadows never quite working right... Outstanding, slowness done right. We walk through the haunted halls and sense a living, breathing ship. Slowing down the pacing for people like Despensor or Mephistophilis or others were excellent. Certain parts involving Stochman, Sulaiman and the Rebel Mithgardians could have been a might better made, especially in the beginning and towards the end, as the climax was coming fast, but the excitement was a bit of a jump from 'rebels' and the capture of Elena's father to Mephistophilis was sharp. I get that character tension was to be built up in these areas, but I could not properly appreciate it, as things like Nakvin's revelation of Elena being her daughter or her problems with Jaren's irrationality were abrupt and bumpy, keeping me separate from them.
I was also in love with the geography and stellar bodies. He described them excellently, and a new wonder awaited every page. The circles are distinct and terrible. The ships themselves, barring Exodus, could have used some more description. I understand the use of ether and the like, but the actual movement was a bit lost on me, and I couldn't get a feel of distance while in space. Everything was too close, or too fast. If it was fast or slow, should have been a bit more clear, so that one feels the gravity of flying through space. Operas can have comedy or handwave certain logics, but running across the stage in the ship and being their before they can catch breath for the next song is a bit much for the audience.
Characters, as mentioned before, are archetypal: Jaren, the young, revenge driven pirate, Nakvin, his mysterious vampiric sister, Teg the strong arm, Deim the fanatic priest, Elena the mysterious waif and Vaun, the power mad sorcerer, among others. This is not bad. It's good. These are not special snowflakes, these are people who follow paths set down. Fated, in a way, to be certain things. It is Man vs. Demonic nature, the world and self defined so that a well-read child can understand. As such, certain characters can waver, come on weak, strong in turns. How crazy Deim is is never properly defined, and warbles in and out. This isn't bad, and in fact helps the reader believe in it. Jaren and Nakvin's relationship is harder to pin down, and while much was told, I wasn't convinced by what I saw. It slipped from potential romance to brother-sister, nephew-aunt, crazy unaware single mother - crazy pirate captain.
The same with Nakvin's emotional bond to Elena. Never QUITE sure where she was on the 'Mother and mother make baby deal. Which I am okay with! I just wonder when they got it. It's handwaved a little TOO easily. Handwaving works for technology, lesser plot points and Deus ex Machina. Elena makes the plot go 'round and may be a potentially evil goddess in story. Hopefully this will be addressed in the sequel, but too little info sorta dragged me out of the relationship.
The trope usage was top notch, and it's clear that Brian Niemeier has a respect for the genre. He allows 'rule of cool' proper reign, and lets badass be badass at appropriate times. This spreads into all aspects of his work, which allows for a break down of his work piece by piece, though not in a bad way. You can know what something is by simply knowing enough tropes, so that one is never surprised by quirks or actions. Though, I was surprised by Eleatha, and thought his being the ship was more metaphorical.
Overall, a fantastic read. I look forward to the next book, and will buy it on kindle when it comes out. Anything in the book I didn't talk about negatively consider a positive. Brian Niemeier has put out a strong first piece, and we hope to see more of him in the future.