Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book Review: Nethereal by Brian Niemeier




All right, before we get into anything, I've got a bit of disclosing to do. Being an audiobook producer who specializes in speculative fiction (and also likes to eat), and given that the author of this book is pretty easy to get in touch with, I have reached out to him about producing an audiobook of this title. I produced an audition, and he seemed pleased with it, but as of the time of this writing/recording, nothing has been officially finalized, either yes or no. I bring this up because this review is going to be fairly glowing (it can't be helped), and I want to assure everyone that I've completely divorced my wanting to produce the audiobook from my evaluation of the quality of the title itself. This is not meant to be an attempt to get into the author's good graces, just an honest evaluation of a piece of fiction I read. Whether or not you believe me or take any word of this review seriously in light of this information is up to you, but I wanted to air that out right up front. 

And with that done, on with the review.

To be honest, it's a bit difficult to know where to begin pulling threads with this book. There are elements of all three sub-genres of speculative fiction in it, and they're interwoven so thoroughly that it's nigh impossible to classify this as strictly science fiction, or fantasy, or horror. Yes, it has spaceships, so it falls neatly into sci-fi. It also has magic, which is usually a trait of fantasy literature. And the majority of the book takes place in Hell, which if that doesn't qualify it as a horror novel I've never read one. This book is, at least in my experience, a completely new animal, and other than enjoy every page I'm not certain quite what to do with it. 

So maybe a spoiler-free breakdown of the general plot is a good starting point. The book focuses on a group of space pirates, and their captain's main goal is the utter destruction of The Guild. The Guild is a bit like the Spacer's Guild from Dune. They have near-complete control of space travel (at least interstellar space travel), and oh yeah, they engineered the genocide of his race. This isn't giving anything away, that's made clear in the first few chapters. So they hook up with a group of renegade scientists who are creating a ship to travel to other Strata to find someplace outside of the Guild's control, and during the ship's maiden voyage something goes horribly wrong and the ship is transported into Hell. This, of course, leads to all kinds of hijinks and horrible situations, all of which kept me on the edge of my seat and were immensely entertaining. In an episode of the Superversive SF Podcast, Mr. Niemeier described it as, "Outlaw Star meets Event Horizon," and honestly I think that's the most apt description of this book anyone could give. 

The plot of this book is one of the densest I've encountered that was written post-1980, and there isn't a wasted paragraph in the entire book. Mr. Niemeier told me it was around 140,000 words, and since reading it I can safely say that all of that is necessary. There isn't a drop of fat on this book. All killer, no filler, is the phrase I used to describe it in my review on Amazon, and I stand by that. There are very few books I would describe that way, and not even Dune (one of my favorite sci-fi novels) gets that appellation from me. Dune has a bit of fat that could've been trimmed. Not quite so bad as certain chapters of Les Miserables, but let's all be honest and admit that story has a bit of a muffin top. 

Nethereal is a lean, mean, beast of a novel, and that's very impressive for a first offering. I've heard it said that a novelist's first novel is always their best, and I've heard it said that the first novel is the worst, and I've encountered authors whose quality seems to fluctuate wildly. I'll remind you of Dune, and then compare that to Dune Messiah, then to Children of Dune. Either way, I think Brian has nothing to worry about. If Nethereal is the best novel he ever produces, I can't imagine the others being such a severe drop in quality that it would be noticeable, let alone worth commenting on.  If it's his worst, then shit, dude, start teaching people how to write, because if it only goes up from here I know a couple of people who would definitely pay for that tutelage. Or rather, they should. Though I won't be able to speak to that without reading Souldancer and The Secret Kings, so I'll leave the rampant speculation and move on.

I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but the tightness of this novel's plot really is staggering. I've read a lot of books in my day, and the vast majority of them had filler. It's something that most writers can't seem to get around. As I said, even Frank Herbert had this problem. These are the parts of the book that put you to sleep in a public area while you're reading. The only times I fell asleep reading Nethereal were because I was already tired from my day job, and I wound up putting the book down and going to sleep, then coming back to it when my own failing wouldn't ruin my absorption of the story. And this story is absorbing. It leaps off the page and grabs you by the throat and lets you know that you're in for one hell of a ride. 

I'll see myself out for that pun after I've finished the review. 

The characters are another point in this book's favor. The characters are lovingly crafted, distinct, have their own motivations, and often these motivations come into conflict with one another, leading to great character growth over the course of the novel. Jaren Peregrine is the cocksure pirate captain, filled with terrible purpose and an overriding need to rid the galaxy of The Guild and to get revenge when he has been wronged. Teg Cross is the rock, the stalwart mercenary, the pragmatic, orders-following right hand man with a heart of gold who would sacrifice himself for his friends in a heartbeat. Nakvin is a troubled woman who, by virtue of her status as the only one of her kind in the universe, can identify with Jaren's pain at his race being wiped out. She is a mysterious figure, with a distressing connection to the events surrounding this adventure, and just might be the mother to something more terrible than any of them could imagine. Deim Corsurunda is a young Steersman, a zealot of a dead faith, and may be a few cans short of a six-pack. And that's just the main crew. Don't get me started on Vaun Mordechai, Elena, Sulaiman, or any of the other characters, because we'll be here all day.

All of these characters are such vibrant people that I found myself caring deeply about what happened to them, which makes the climax of the book so much more satisfying. Details of this I will keep to myself except to show you a screencap of a tweet I sent to the author directly after finishing the book. 

It's safe to say that I was a bit emotional after finishing the book and finding out what happened to all these people I'd cared so much about. The characters feel alive, they feel like real people, and that's one of the best things about this novel, and a big part of what draws you into the story so thoroughly that you'll be completely glued to your physical copy/kindle or kind app on your phone until you finish it or are forced to put it down because holy shit has it really been six hours already? 

The mechanics of this universe that Mr. Niemeier has brought to life are also fascinating, and in my experience near-completely original in the field of sci-fi. Oh, sure, there are bits and pieces I recognize from other works in the field. The Guild is akin to the Spacer's Guild in Dune, Jaren's Worked rodcaster is very similar to the gun of the main character in Outlaw Star, The Compass Deim uses to cast his Workings reminds me of what I've seen of Full Metal Alchemist (though I've never watched the show myself so I could be drawing lines where none exist), and there are others. But the blend, the mix is what makes this original. Taking all these little things, putting them together and crafting a coherent, internally consistent universe out of them is a monumental feat, and I for one stand impressed. 

There is the fact that Steersmen are linked with the ship while they're piloting it, and can feel what the ship feels. This puts me in mind of the Titans in Warhammer 40K, though the link in Nethereal is achieved through a device called The Wheel rather than a direct neural link to the machine, and seems to be more magical in origin and execution. There is also the magic of Workings, the ether, and prana, which come together to form a magic system that could very easily have been put into a fantasy universe, but I'm struggling to think of one that's done something akin to that. The fact that swords are not only useful, but used to devastating effect is another surprising little quirk of this world, and the sword fights that happen throughout the book are nothing short of spectacular. 

Mr. Niemeier's cosmology is also very, very thoroughly worked out. In an age where most cosmologies in science fiction novels are staid atheist there-is-no-god-or-if-there-is-it's-not-talked-about-in-polite-company complete aversions to the topic itself, Brian tackles this and creates an entire universe filled with gods, devils, and those who serve them. In space. And those who wish to become them, as well. There is a creation myth, an order to life and the universe, and it turns out Hell is real. Though that's obvious from the summary. And what's more, all of the information pertinent to this cosmology is revealed in snatches that are easily digestible and fit in with the rest of the lore like pieces of a puzzle, leaving you with a picture becoming steadily clearer and more ominous as the novel rushes to its conclusion.

And I mentioned this in my Amazon review, but it's worth repeating. I've seen a lot of blurbs and pull-quotes that said things like, "This book rushes to its conclusion, a real page turner!" and I never really understood what that meant until this book. There were parts of this book that I had to actively force myself to read slower because the action was moving so fast, and I was so interested in what was going on, that I found myself reading too fast and missing things in my need to see what the fuck happened next.

Which is another thing I feel needs to be brought up. This book outflanked me. Usually when I read a book, I try to guess where the author is going with a particular thing, or try to fathom where a scene will end up. Of course I tried to do that with Nethereal, and I was defeated at every. Single. Turn. There is not a single point in this book that I felt was tropey, or predictable, or even safe. I got about fifteen chapters in and decided that I just had no fucking clue where this was going, and buckled in to see where the ride took me. Which is not to say that the book is confusing, but it is opaque until it decides it's time to reveal a piece of information that makes the puzzle clearer. This book tells you what you need to know when you need to know it, and that's all you need to know. And I understand that this seems an odd thing to praise a book for, but the amount of times I was blindsided over the course of the story is staggering, and eventually I just dropped the tea leaves and read the damn book.

My final verdict, as you can probably guess, is that this book is well worth the price of admission, multiple times over. Go buy it. If you're anything like me you'll absolutely love it. This book takes science fiction, turns it on its head, then vivisects it and reshapes it into something that I've never seen the genre do before. At least not all at once. You can find the Amazon page here.

Music for the audio version is Exhilarate by Kevin Macleod: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?collection=26&Search=Search
Exhilarate Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/


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