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In a crowded year of strong debut fantasy novels, "No Return" is a very strong contender. Beginning with an assured voice, a prologue of a pitiless landscape of an hallucinogenic salt lake, expanding out to a world whose currency is the powdered skin of an Elder race, populated by (among others) rival enclaves of warrior monks engaging in ritualized battles to defend and proselytize their competing faiths. There is a god with city-killing orbital kinetic ordinance at his whim; there are deeply weird and sexualized alchemistic magics; there are sentient constructs of magical metal spheres; there are dragons and ghosts.
The narrative is split along 5 principle points of view in a rotating fashion, across two primary storylines. In the first, it is a 'journey' narrative, in which we meet the three companions who form a bond as they travel to a massive gladiatorial tournament. These three are 1. a warrior monk, 2. a female sell-sword, and 3. a construct. In the other, it is a more political/academic setting of advanced magical research, and the power struggles (and competing lusts) of a senior mage and one of her more junior colleagues with experimental theories. These "outbound mages" make excursions to space, to observe the god and take measurements of his "spheres" -- the two smallest of which had been used centuries before to demonstrate the planet-killing power at hand.
The world builds and deepens and widens; the journey narrative treks us through disparate peoples and landscapes and histories, developing the characters and (through flashbacks) providing back stories as well. Throughout there's always the atmosphere of a deeper world at work, at mysteries not yet revealed. Who is the god Adrash, what does he want? Building toward dual climaxes in both narratives and powering on into denouement and stage-setting for a sequel, a lengthy epilogue serves to further widen the mysteries of this world by another deep breath. All in all, a very strong, no-holds-barred and emotionally impactful debut novel by Jernigan, whose short fiction I have followed on and off through M-BRANE SF and Asimov's. His is a bold, determined voice, with a razor's edge balance of rawness and assuredness; each character's point of view was distinct and fully realized. This is absolutely an heroic fantasy novel not to be missed.
I had never heard of the narrator John FitzGibbon before; presumably he was found by Audible through taking on stipend-eligible ACX titles. In any case he appears to be a US stage actor, and this training serves him exceedingly, exceedingly well. There are some passages of potentially uncomfortable content, from eviscerating violence to explicit sexual encounters. FitzGibbon does not shy away from any of these, nor over-emphasize in a campy way. His voices for each character are solid and distinct, bringing accents which accentuate the character's backgrounds. In particular his voice for the construct, Berun, is as outstanding a character voice as you'll find in audio.
11 of 11 people found this review helpful
Every so often, the fantasy genre produces a new crop of writers who boldly break out of the walled garden of its tired conventions, and change the rules of what “can” be done. While it’s perhaps a little early to tag Zachary Jernigan as such an author, he shows promise akin to earlier freethinkers of fantasy. The universe here, which has the feeling of being set in some unimaginably distant, decadent future, seems to owe a debt to Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, but the gritty, street-level, anti-traditional mythos of the world resembles China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, too. Since these works are already favorites of mine, it wasn’t hard to jump in.
Jernigan is his own guy, though, and tells a story that’s confident, imaginative, baroque, violent, and erotic. As we learn in the prologue, the world of Jeroun has a god, who dwells in an assembly of orbiting metal spheres called the Needle, and can’t seem to make up his mind whether or not to destroy his human creations (apparently, one goes a little mad as a god). On the planet below, cults that reject or embrace Adrash’s dominion battle in ritualized street fights. Elsewhere, a community of mages seeks to ascend into space and meet Adrash personally -- a risky idea at best.
The story is divided into two main threads. One follows a trio of warriors on their way to a sort of world championship religious battle tournament: a monk in living armor, a down-on-her-luck pit fighter haunted by a (literal) ghost, and a robot-like being known as a constructed man, whose former master continues to make unwelcome visits to his mind via some sort of magical data link. The other storyline deals with two astronaut-mages, who have diverging ambitions in the works. The characters are well-developed, with distinct, complementary personalities and histories. The ambitiously strange world might have been a little too much to take in in one pass, though; I had to reread a few chapters before the geography, politics, history, religion, and ethnography of Jeroun made sense to me and I could focus on the story. (Writers: take note of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, those pre-chapter lexicon snippets are handy cues.) Some readers might find all the sexuality a bit over-the-top -- it didn’t bother me, but its rawness wasn't really to my taste, either.
However, not huge issues. Jernigan’s confident, unadorned prose takes command of the reader’s mental viewscreen, mixing delicate sensory details (the smell of pine, the flavors of herbed bread), macabre images (corpses of an elder race still strewn about after some ancient apocalypse, now harvested for magical substance), and far-out, superhero comic-like sequences such as mages battling in space, or a robot walking along the bottom of a lake, engaged in dialog with a hallucination while giant fish pass by. Cool stuff. Surprisingly for a left-field debut, audiobook narrator John FitzGibbon is excellent, with a “stage presence” and a range of voices that suit the novel quite well.
Clearly, No Return is meant to establish a world and its characters for future books, so I'll have to withhold full judgment until I see how the story develops, but it's certainly an impressive start. Can Jernigan can keep it all together in future installments, and not let the high-flown cosmic stuff overwhelm the intimate personal tales he’s set up? I look forward to finding out. Definitely a book and a writer worthy of your attention.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful