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Souldancer (Soul Cycle) (Volume 2) Paperback – February 13, 2016
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About the Author
Brian Niemeier is a best selling science fiction author and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.
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I'll be honest, this was not the sequel I was expecting. There's a large time gap between the two books that caught me off guard in the beginning. Furthermore, the story spends significant time with characters that simply aren't in Nethereal. But the two stories are connected, and in a very strong way. I give Mr. Niemeier strong props for weaving the tales together in the way that he does. I can say that it's not an easy task - but to say much more than that would be to spoil rather important parts of the story.
The world here continues to be something new, unique, and different, rather than just a new spin on the same old generic "space universe" that we see so often in space operas. This installment explores even more of that world, and brings us far more of its history. The new characters are a real joy, especially Xander and Astlin. Meanwhile, the returning characters are even more interesting in this incarnation. Most interesting is the way the finale of Nethereal has repercussions that underlie every page of this novel, from beginning to end.
To put it bluntly, this novel is the rare sequel that manages to surpass its predecessor. I give it 5 stars out of 5, and I highly encourage reading it. There's a reason Mr. Niemeier received his Campbell nomination, after all.
Souldancer is nothing like that.
Oh sure, it's set 20 years after, has a few of the same characters and references to others, and is still maddeningly (delightfully) vague about the socio-religious layout, but it's a smaller, much more personal story. Nethereal had the same concept: a man seeking to avenge his father and his people set against an all controlling edifice, but that kind of story almost has to be epic if it's not to be a failure. Souldancer is quieter: a love story, almost unconventional except in the persons of the lovers and the currents set in motion in Nethereal that drag them along in their wake. It is a much more accessible story, I think, despite how much I enjoyed its predecessor.
Two things I want to specifically mention: visualizations and exposition. Mr. Niemeier's visualizations are wonderfully fleshed out and vivid. I compare this series to Dune because both Herbert and Niemeier described worlds of technology so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic, but so seemingly ancient that it was not just commonplace, but accepted and even a little dated. Herbert introduced artillery as his great secret weapon, commonplace to us but almost wholly unknown to the Dune universe, while he describes force shields, space flight, and everything else as utterly commonplace. Niemeier has that same mystique, but he does not fall into the trap that ensnared Herbert: he doesn't feel the need to explain what is commonplace to the reader.
Which brings me to exposition. Dune created a rich, ancient world almost completely by implication. Herbert subsequently spoiled it (in my opinion), by trying to make too much explicit in the subsequent books, losing the sense of mystery he had so carefully cultivated. Brian Niemeier avoids this trap by letting the commonplace remain commonplace unless a character would realistically discuss such a thing. By introducing characters who are out of their element, he can exposit as the story requires, which is an old trick but one that is too often abused by authors who are desperate to show off how cool their created universe really is. Mr. Niemeier chose to be more subtle, for which I thank him.
Finally, this book was awarded a Dragon for Horror. Full disclosure, I voted for it and think it deserved to win, but this is not the horror of Stephen King: there is no need to abuse, maim, and kill beloved characters just to jerk the reader's emotional chain. Which isn't to say that doesn't happen (and Brian, if you kill off Teg in Secret Kings, I will be VERY unhappy), but it always feels like it serves more of a purpose than mood-setting. No, the horror is like that of Iain Banks, without the late Mr. Banks need to be over the top.
So, if you are a fan of Herbert and Banks, I highly recommend this book. You don't have to start with Nethereal, but it certainly helps and I would recommend it regardless.
Souldancer isn't a straight sequel, at least, not in the way you'd think. It picks up 20 years after the climax of Nethereal. Fire burned the cosmos inside out in what is now being called the Cataclysm. The novel takes place almost entirely on a post-apocalyptic Mithgar (the grandest of the Cardinal Spheres). In addition, the author has decided to introduce a completely new cast of characters rather than picking up directly with the characters of the previous novel.
At first, I was wary, remembering how lost I was at the beginning of the Nethereal. However, despite the introduction of new characters, the author has done a MUCH better job of introducing the setting and explaining things without drowning the reader in exposition. These dollops of info, along with major revelations, are far better organized than they were in the first book. As a result, major events and revelations had a much bigger impact on me than they did in Nethereal.
The new characters are a welcome addition to the cast. The relationship between Xander and Astlin was surprisingly well-written. There will be some who call it cheesy, but I enjoyed seeing their relationship develop and grow through the novel. The villains are scary, evil and properly villainy without veering into cheesiness.
I must also mention that this novel is very different from the first one. Nethereal, had a more swashbuckling-adventure sort of feel to it. The main characters were constantly traveling to different planets and stratum. Souldancer, on the other hand, takes place primarily in the ruins of Mithgar and its orbit. In fact, this novel feels a lot more like fantasy with some horror and sci-fi elements than Nethereal did. Especially the first third. I had no problem with this and enjoyed watching the stakes and scope slowly expand until the cosmos-shattering climax.
All that being said, Souldancer is not without its share of minor nitpicks. Again these are minor nitpicks not major problems. Certain characters are introduced and then vanish only to suddenly appear in a much too deus-ex-machina-ish fashion for me. If these sudden reappearances were just a little bit better foreshadowed, I wouldn't care so much. But as it stands, when some of these reappearances happen, it feels like the author needed them to appear there for the sake of the story rather than feeling like logical effects of the story's previous events.
Ultimately, Souldancer is fantastic. I feel as if I have to go back and lower my rating of Nethereal in order to better reflect the gap in quality between the two novels. If you want to read something unique, treat yourself to Souldancer. You will not be disappointed.
5 out of 5 stars
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