Robyn Reviews: Nophek Gloss

‘Nophek Gloss’ is a brilliantly creative science-fiction book packed with futuristic technology, incredible theories about multiple universes, and fascinating alien races. However, it’s also an example of how an unlikeable protagonist can let an otherwise fantastic book down. I imagine fans of plot-driven complex science fiction will adore this, but fans of more character-centred books like me may struggle with certain aspects.

Caiden’s life is simple. Aged ten, his aptitude test deemed him to be the perfect mechanic, so ever since he’s worked with his dad to fix things. He’s tired of his dad refusing to answer questions or telling him he’s too young, but that’s OK – he’s fourteen, almost an adult, and he’s sure he’ll get the answers soon. Instead, his entire planet is destroyed by their overseers, Caiden only escaping by finding a mysterious ship – and with the aid of a mysterious crew of Passagers. Wracked by guilt and anger, Caiden dreams only of revenge – but the multiverse is a large and complicated place, and if Caiden is to survive it he’ll have to take drastic measures.

Caiden is a fourteen year old boy who goes through a hugely traumatic event. In a single day he witnesses unimaginable horrors and finds out that his entire life is a carefully constructed lie. Understandably, this takes a huge toll. Caiden suffers recurrent nightmares and bursts of uncontrollable anger. He makes rash decisions and lets his emotions take over. None of these things are his fault, and the’re common results of severe trauma – but they do make him a very difficult single POV character. His head is an unpleasant place to be, and – coupled with actions which are reckless at best – it makes him difficult to engage with. He also instantly seems to win over several of his new companions – part of this is explained later, but it felt far too unrealistic for a damaged and unpleasant child to so quickly make such close friends, even if they understood his trauma. He does improve a bit as the book goes on, but he’s never as compelling as I want him to be.

It’s a shame that Caiden is such a difficult character because everyone else on the ship is fascinating. They’re a variety of species, all with complicated – and equally horrible – pasts, and seeing into their heads and perspectives would provide an excellent counterpoint. I especially like the ship’s cook and medic – they’re initially very cold to Caiden, but they have an amazing animal companion and a heart of gold, and by the end it’s clear they’re secretly a massive softie. The ship itself is also, to an extent, alive – a popular science fiction trope that isn’t utilised that much here but has clear potential for the sequels.

The worldbuilding is the strongest part. Hansen paints a picture of an exceptionally complex world with layered politics, incredible xenobiology, fascinating future technology, and above all a feeling of complete uniqueness. There are familiar elements and tropes, but the overall creation is entirely unique. It’s a world that would be fascinating on the big screen, and spending time in it – even if that time involves dealing with Caiden – is a joy. The story is wide in scope, with a great deal of travelling between places, but each new place – be that a spaceship, a space station, a city, or an entire new planet – is developed with impeccable attention to detail. It’s a true triumph and a testament to Hansen’s strength as a creator.

Revenge plots are a stalwart of science fiction, but again Hansen spices it up and throws in some surprises. Some of the twists are predictable, but there’s enough there to keep it engaging and fast-paced. There are also no unnecessary distractions – no romantic sub-plots or other diversions – which I really appreciate. Caiden is a traumatised teenager out to avenge the death of his entire world – this isn’t the time for romance. The plot is dark at times – this isn’t a book to go into for those with any triggers surrounding death, including animal death – but the ending is hopeful, and there’s an undercurrent throughout that things will get better.

Overall, this is a book that some will adore for its beautifully complex worldbuilding and fast-paced, brutal plot, but others will struggle with because of the unlikeable protagonist and elements of implausibility. Unfortunately, I fall into the latter camp, but I can still appreciate Hansen’s strength as a writer. I don’t know whether or not I’ll seek out the sequel, but I’ll certainly be following Hansen’s career with interest. Recommended to fans of harder science fiction and intricate worldbuilding.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 17th November 2020

Robyn Reviews: Unconquerable Sun

Unconquerable Sun is an action-packed, plot-driven novel, at the expense of its characters. Fans of epic space opera that bounces from action scene to action scene without pause will get a real adrenaline rush from this – but for those who need to connect to the characters to care about the story, this becomes more of a slog through over 500 pages of a confusing mess.

It is pitched as a gender-bent Alexander the Great in space. I adore Greek and Roman history and mythology, and I’m a huge sci-fi fan, so this sounded right up my street. Alexander the Great is a historical figure I’m less familiar with, but I know enough to see the parallels between him and his equivalent in this book – Princess Sun. Weirdly, however, Sun doesn’t feel entirely like the main character. This book contains multiple point-of-view characters – as many epic science fiction stories do – but while Princess Sun’s perspective is told in third person past, another character, Persephone, gets sections told in first person present. This gives the impression that Unconquerable Sun is about her, with the other characters merely lending a different perspective. Persephone is a promising character but also exceptionally irritating, and her sections being told in a different perspective disrupts the story’s flow.

The main issue I have with the story is how flat the characters are. As I read, I’m constantly being told what the characters are feeling, but never shown it. None of the feelings feel authentic, and I can’t fathom any of the characters motivations. Princess Sun is angry at her parents for treating her like a child and not believing in her ability – but if this wasn’t explicitly stated on the page, it wouldn’t be clear. Persephone is desperate to escape from her family’s clutches and make a stamp as her own person – but it’s never entirely clear why. She also falls instantly in lust with almost everyone she meets, which is irritating to read about and an unnecessary distraction from the plot. Zizou is actually a great character, and the only one to make me feel something, but vastly under-utilised. Princess Sun’s Companions feature prominently, but there are so many of them it’s very difficult to remember which one is which – especially as the reader is told so little about them beyond their names, so they never evolve into fully-fledged characters. It’s difficult for struggles and deaths to be impactful when the characters didn’t feel alive in the first place.

The setting and backdrop are intriguing. The Chaonian’s, led by Princess Sun’s mother Queen Eirene, have been at war with the Phene for generations. The Chaonian’s have military might – with military intelligence led by the Lee family – but the Phene have superior technology and the allegiance of the Gatoi, beings engineered to be the perfect soldiers. However, a few Gatoi have switched sides – one of them Princess Sun’s father, making her half-Gatoi and in many respects an unsuitable heir to the throne. The descriptions of the different cultures – Chaonian, Gatoi, Phene – and technological advances are very interesting, but never really developed. The story never slows its pace enough to allow any kind of explanation or worldbuilding. This mostly works, but there are sections where this becomes confusing and the story becomes difficult to visualise. The book takes place on such an epic scale that full description would probably put the page count somewhere upwards of eight hundred, but it might be worth it to make sure that the reader actually understands what’s going on.

The plot is the novel’s highlight. Most of the book is spent with the Chaonians, with occasional glimpses at the Phene’s plans through Apama – an intriguing character who deserved more screentime. There are tangled webs of secrets and lies, betrayals, assassinations, and frank invasions, and the plot never takes its foot off the throttle. I think this would work 100x better as a film than a book – so much happens that would be incredible to see on screen. It’s harder to take in via written format.

I feel I should also mention that this is marketed as an LGBT book, and it contains plenty of diversity, with relationships between all genders entirely normalised. Princess Sun is in a stable relationship with another female-presenting character, which seems to have great potential at the start but never becomes as prominent as the beginning hints at. The representation is generally done very well – with the exception of Persephone, who falls into the trope of bisexual or pansexual character who falls in lust with everyone.

Overall, a book that fans of fast-paced, plot-driven science fiction will adore, but those who like fully-fledged characters will struggle to connect with. Unfortunately, it isn’t my cup of tea.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the contents of my review

 

Published by Head of Zeus
Hardback: October 1st 2020