BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Osiris, apparently the city on Earth, is the site of a conflict between the haves and have nots, as a scion of the most powerful family and a have-not shake Osiris by their alliance.
PROS: Interesting characters, premise and a great “bottle” setting; excellent prose and evocation of themes.
CONS: Very weak plotting and narrative flaws undermine the strengths of the novel.
BOTTOM LINE: A premise and set-up that doesn’t rise as far above the waves as it should.
The last bastion of human civilization, after our Neon Age has come and fallen, is a city built on a continental shelf in the ocean. A city divided by fabulous wealth and the remnants of the old age on the one half, and grinding poverty, hunger, need and lack on the other side. A house divided against itself cannot stand, and Osiris is a house that may not manage to stand. Shortages threaten the social fabric and changing weather threatens all. When a maverick scion of the powerful Rechenov family meets a westerner seeking social justice, the world of Osiris hangs on their actions.
Osiris, the debut novel from E.J. Swift and the first projected in a trilogy, brings us convincingly into both sides of this city; the opulent and well-off half, and the down-and-out struggling “Western” side, where day to day survival against violence, lack of food and the changing weather are a continual challenge. The future of Osiris, should this conflict cannot be adjudicated, is bleak.
There is a lot to like in this debut novel. The two characters, Adelaide Rechnov (although she prefers the name Mystik) from the wealthy portion of the city, and the down-and-out westerner Vikram are well-described, fully three-dimensional protagonists whose interactions with each other and those around them bring the world of Osiris to life. Adelaide’s desire to find out the truth of what happened to her missing twin brother, and Vikram’s desire for social justice in the wake of his friend’s execution interact, intersect and entangle with each other, often in unexpected ways. Adelaide’s family, in particular, stands out as well-envisioned secondary characters that form a complex web of relationships, both for her and, as the plot unfolds, for Vikram.
In addition, the setting itself resounds well on the themes of the novel: a world in a bottle running out of key resources; opulence and wealth cheek by jowl to grinding and deadly poverty and deprivation; clear evidence of climate change that could threaten the integrity of Osiris itself; political fecklessness and an inability to confront said problems, if not an outright refusal to even face said problems or even acknowledge their existence. Sound familiar? If science fiction truly tells stories about the world we live in, rather than being about the plausible or possible futures, then by any and all lights, Osiris is solidly in that tradition, telling truths about our own world through the lens of a future society moving toward its own cliff.
The prose is beautiful too. The world of Osiris, be it the opulence of Adelaide’s pampered existence (even as a black sheep of her family), or the harshness of Vikram’s day-to-day existence, or his efforts to infiltrate the West, are excellently displayed. Time and again I admired the turn of phrase and the language the author used to paint the picture and bring the world to life. This mastery of prose is top notch. Even as much as I enjoyed the themes and characters, I think the beauty of the prose is my favorite thing to like about the novel and commend it to others.
On the other hand, I found major weaknesses at larger scales of the novel beyond the sentence and the paragraph, enough weaknesses to undermine the otherwise excellent nature of this book. The plotting is extremely weak. Things happen in far too languid a fashion, and there is no sense of urgency to help propel the reader forward, or to encourage that coveted “one more chapter” sort of feeling that I enjoy in science fiction and fantasy. I tried to make heads or tails of the structure and was thwarted. The novel simply drifts all the time. So while I was consistently enthralled by the prose, the plotting and structure did not drive me forward. I don’t know if this pacing was part of the point of theme, but the engine of the novel really never got off the ground for me. The world building and characters kept me going, but I never had that burning need to find out what happens next, even when characters are put in a pinch.
The beauty of the prose, the evocation of the characters, the pitch-perfect theme, and the resonances to our world all make Osiris worthwhile. I just wish that the plotting had been tighter, the pacing better, and the narrative more engaging. I can hope that subsequent novels of the Osiris Project will marry Swift’s considerable strengths to better plotting and pacing.