BRIEF SYNOPSIS: On the planet of Jeroun god exists, and he is far from benevolent. Adrash looks down upon the world, prepared to unleash final annihilation. Men in suits of black and white do battle in his name, some wish to submit to him and others wish to defy him. Vedas, a Blacksuit of the Thirteenth Order embarks on a journey to a great fighting tournament that may well decide the fate of Jeroun.
PROS: Stunning imagery, absorbing setting, diverse cultures, intriguing characters, cool ideas.
CONS: Not enough exploration of some of the settings and ideas. Climax was a little weak.
BOTTOM LINE: Ambitious, impressive, and bold. This is not your run of the mill fantasy.
No Return is an excellent start to the new reading year. This is the sort of novel that stands in the shadow of two super genres, for it is neither science fiction nor fantasy. It is instead a beautiful twining of both. It is epic in the in the more traditional sense of the word, though not a narrative poem. No Return features heroic deeds, strange cultures, dark violence, and consequences. It has the trappings on a new age legend, set on an extraordinary world.
Jeroun. There is so, so much to like about Jeroun. An aloof god resides over the planet, prepared to rain down spheres of mass destruction. Sanctioned and bloody sectarian battles are waged in the very streets. Mages use alchemy to reach space in order to study their god in hopes of finding a method to placate him. The bodies of elders are a hot commodity, the dust from their bones is traded as currency and their skin is worn as armor. The elders are long gone but their bastard offspring is not. The eldermen are powerful but bear deformities as a testament to their lineage. There are living constructs and dragons and weirder things besides. It’s a magical place. It’s a dangerous place.
The setting of No Return is hands down my favorite things about the novel. In a lot of ways Jeroun brings to mind Arrakis from Frank Herbert’s Dune. That’s not to say that they are alike, though they bear similarities, it’s that they both feel so steeped in culture and history. The world Jernigan has created is exotic and fascinating. With all the traditions and ethnicities this is not some white bread setting. Not even close. My biggest complaint (there are very few) is that readers don’t get to experience more of Jeroun. The plot is tight and concentrated, which is excellent, but it moves at such a fast pace that at times you desire the characters to stop and smell the roses.
The characters are reflections of the setting. They too, are extremely cool. Vedas the Blacksuit is skilled at fighting. His allegiance to the Thirteenth Order surrounds him in violence but he refrains from killing his foes whenever possible. For such a lethal combatant he is unusually childlike in nature. He does not lie, his emotions are easily discernible, and he is naive about his place in the world. He’s a zealot but he doesn’t yet understand it. Churls on the other hand, is a mercenary haunted by the ghost of her daughter. She is the lone practitioner of the Dull Sword technique. She is much more mature than Vedas, though she carries her own emotional baggage. Berun is a construct, a man made entirely of modular sphere. His strength is mighty but he is the puppet of his creator, set on a task he doesn’t fully understand. The three form an unlikely fellowship on a journey to a fighting tournament. The group dynamic is fraught with tension and desire. Each member has their own motivations and demons, the trip is no frolick through the Hundred Acre Forest.
The characters of Ebn and Pol are also cool, the very idea of the Royal Outbound Mages itself an invigorating concept. They have personal motivations despite sharing a common purpose. Alchemist astronauts! The Outbound Mages play politics, jockeying for position and power. If one of their colleagues doesn’t kill them, contact with the god Adrash might. Speaking of Adrash, the disillusioned god of Jeroun – there seem to be more gods in recent fantasy releases. Adrash is larger than life. He is a god but he retains some aspects of humanity. He is Atlas…if Atlas decided, “Hey screw humanity lets hurl the celestial sphere at civilization.”
The plot is fast paced, filled with violence and sex, beauty and terror. The violence is not glorified. The characters recognize it for what it is and the consequences it brings. The fight scenes don’t last overly long and though descriptive, readers won’t drown in gallons of blood. The sex scenes…they are explicit. It’s not a condemnation, just a warning. The erotica is well written and bound to appeal to all sexualities. The end, when it comes, is over too fast considering the build up. Keeping things clean and efficient beats a lumbering beast of a novel that suffocates under its own weight. Still, it left me wanting more. The conclusion hints at the possibility of more to come but No Return w0rks as a standalone adventure.
No Return is a beautiful novel, especially for a debut. It is weird yet digestible. There are shades of Herbert’s Dune and Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains, and even a hint of K.J. Parker’s Sharps. Most of all though, this is a book all of its own. The world is colorful and weighted, the characters faceted, and the ideas wicked cool. It would take a truly visionary director to craft a film that would do it any justice. The themes are relevant without brow beating and lecturing. There is a very literary feel to it, just not in the dreadfully boring, heavy handed sort of way.