“‘Are you my friend?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ she said truthfully, ‘whether or not you’re a puppet.” – Berun and Churls, No Return, p. 259.
I’ve been reading a lot the past few months but not writing about it, so this week I thought that I would look at a book that is due more attention. There’s been a lot of discussion about negative reviews and author/reviewer interactions lately, and I thought the best way to respond to this was to actually talk about fantastic literature rather than the discourse around it.
Zachary Jernigan is a new writer (and, full disclosure, has become a friend of mine) whose novel No Return was published at the tail end of the Night Shade Books collapse/rebirth (depending on how you want to characterize it). It is the story of several wounded souls and one of the most annoyingly petulant gods I have ever encountered in the realms of fantastika. The world of Jeroun is under the watchful, spiteful gaze of the god Adrash, who orbits the planet with an array of enormous spheres that he sends down to smite mortals when they displease him. The existence of God and (quite obviously) his form is not in question; what splits people into religious factions is how to deal with him. Should he be worshiped or spurned, placated or resisted? To work out the profound ramifications of this conundrum the two sides regularly send warriors to the great city of Danoor where they meet to slaughter each other in personal combat, aided in their violence by the wearing of magical suits that enhance and protect them. Part of the novel’s narrative follows one of these warriors, Vedas Tezul of the Thirteenth Order of the Black Suits, as he and his companions Churli Casta Jons (Churls), a seasoned competition fighter, and Berun, a man made of metal spheres, travel to the contest. Each character carries a burden from their past that haunts them, in some cases literally. Along the way they all undergo some profound changes that alter not only their goals but their sense of self.
The novel also shows us other parts of this world; a parallel narrative arc is concerned with the machinations of two Royal Outbound Mages, wizards who seek to travel to orbit and study (or even confront) Adrash. The two mages, Pol and Ebn, struggle with the political/academic system and each other to fulfill their lifelong ambitions. This contrast with the other arc is stark on many levels and creates a complex tension in the broader story. While our three travelers are not typical inhabitants of this world, their lives are starkly unprivileged when viewed in comparison to the mages. And yet, by novel’s end they each come to a more profound place than that of the two upper-class mages, and that dual lensing gives the reader a fuller sense of the world while intensifying the differences that constitute it.
Jernigan bookends the main story with a prologue and an ending that could be a prologue. Neither seems directly relevant to the main story but both serve to contextualize it, although the latter doesn’t work as well as the former. The opening vignette is a sort of ending, a lesson in what unthinking ingestion of power can do, while the ending is about what inconsiderate exercise of power does to a person. In both cases, it makes them into something dangerous and unstable, capricious and destabilizing.
Jeroun is a world always on the edge of destruction, and this inescapable fact touches everything about it, even the experience of living in it. Jernigan creates dissonance and strangeness through the characters’ eyes; the narrative itself shifts between the characters in each section. At one point Churls is injured and tries to make sense of the world around her:
“The waking world was little more than a dream itself, a series of confusing tableaus. The sun progressed in jerks above her. The ground rose and fell so that the view upon waking was always different. A shimmering lake with Vedas’s reflection in it, her own face peering over the side of the sling. Flashes of light, the sun through tree trunks. A squat, ugly animal standing before them, grunting, stamping hooves into the black earth. A wall of hieroglyphed stone.” (p. 149)
This sensation of being off-balance has some resonance with the experience of reading No Return. Jeroun is very much an alien world, a world where power corrupts in strange and terrible ways. It befuddles, it taints, and it infects bodies and minds. Magic in this world is created with the remains of eldermen, possibly the indigenous species of the world, whose skin and flesh and bones makes up the currency and technology of Jeroun. The ability of these remains to transform a person seems endless, but is anchored to the material fact of their existence forces one to imbue objects with their substance or to bodily taken them in.
Bodiliness is the core of the novel; the violence and sex, the inscription of power onto bodies, and the dynamic of faith and betrayal that results when dealing with things outside of the body, all orbit around that core like Adrash’s Needle, threatening each character’s future. The three travelers are haunted by people they have betrayed – or must betray – while the two mages are deluded by their own ambitions, by a lack of trust in anything outside of themselves. It is telling that the former group find more compelling, positive resolutions than the latter, who are in different ways consumed by their pursuit of power, by their unmooring from that dynamic with other bodies. This makes No Return a rich novel that worms into the reader’s mind by unbalancing the reader’s eye and imagination and creating gaps where the deep humanity of the characters can emerge.
No Return has some problems as a novel; the pacing is awkward in spots, interactions are often compressed or outright explained (sometimes inadequately), and the ending while intriguing, is a puzzlement. But the novel is also a hugely rewarding read that takes some chances while wringing all it can out of some fantastic conventions. The novel has a fierce momentum that carries through both action and exposition. There are echoes of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun in its SFnal baroqueness and blurring of genre distinctions, but Jernigan’s writing is much more kinetic and has less wordplay and ostentation than Wolfe’s magnum opus. It is visceral not just in its focus on the physicality, emotions, and sexuality of its characters, but in the way that things deep inside, felt bodily and obscured, propel the characters. There are pulpish moments, but also deeply experienced ones where Jernigan struggles as a writer to give the reader the fullness of what a character is feeling within themselves, what penetrates their body as well as their mind. Even theology is physical and based on gut reactions to the monster in the sky who threatens to destroy the world on a whim. It is when someone decides that this is a problem that change erupts. In fact, it is the resolution of moral dilemmas that alters each of the characters profoundly and sets the stage for an even more compelling story ahead.