I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank Rosie Amber (check here if you would like to have your book reviewed) and the author for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel, that I freely chose to review.
I had read a number of reviews of this author’s previous novel, The Usurper King, and although I haven’t read it yet I was intrigued by the subject and the feedback on the quality of his writing, and following a recommendation of his new book by a fellow reviewer, I could not resist.
This book is difficult to categorise and, for me, that is one of its appeals, although it will perhaps put off some genre readers. I won’t rehash the plot as the description is detailed enough and the book is quite short (it is perhaps a bit long for a novella, but it is shorter than most novels). The setting and much of the action would fit into the science-fiction genre. The degree of detail and description of technology and processes is not such that it should put off casual readers (I found the scientific background intriguing although I’m not an expert and cannot comment on how accurate it is), although it might not satisfy hard science-fiction fans.
A number of characters appear in the short novel, but the main character and first-person narrator of the story is Jim. Like Scheherazade, he is doomed to be forever telling stories, although, in his case, it is always the same story, the story, or history, of his (their) origin. Somehow (I won’t go into the details. I’ll leave that for readers to discover), Jim has managed to cheat death and has lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. Although the story he is forever retelling is, at least in appearance, the story of how he ended up in his current situation, through the process of telling the story, we learn about Jim himself. Snippets of his life keep coming up, and these are enmeshed with the history of humanity at large, as he has become, accidentally, the somewhat reluctant chronicler of human civilisation. I am not sure any of the characters are sympathetic
The story —which gets at some of the fundamental questions Philosophy has been studying for centuries— involves a small spaceship crew faced with an impossible situation. What if they were the only beings left alive in the universe and only had access to finite resources in order to survive? (Yes, this sounds familiar). Would they hold on tight to the hope of a possible rescue from outside and risk their survival possibilities to pursue that dream? Or would they try to survive at whatever cost? The book divides the crew into two, the ones who are more realistic and are happy to continue living on their current circumstances, and the ones that refuse to give up the hope for a better but uncertain life. There are members of the crew that seem to cycle from one position to another, and some who keep their cards close to their chests and we don’t know full well what they think. Suicide is high in the book, and the desperation of the characters that choose that way out is credible and easy to understand and empathise with. The narrative takes the characters to the limit and then pushes them beyond it. Ultimately, it is impossible not to read this book and wonder what makes life worth living. Is life itself enough in its own right? Is survival against all odds the best attitude? What is the result of, and the price to pay for, pursuing such a course of action?
I am fascinated by the novel, and particularly by Jim’s character. As he tells the story, it becomes clear that at some point he made a momentous decision. He says he has been on the brink of suicide for hundreds of years, but after something tragic happened (no spoilers), he decided he would keep on living. Although the book has plenty of strange goings on (cannibalism, BDSM sex… which make for a hard read but are not the most graphically detailed and gore examples I have read, by any means) and it shuns conventional morality, this decision and Jim’s motivation behind it are what will keep this book present in my mind, and I know I will be thinking about it for a long time. (Why would anybody put himself or herself through such a thing? How do we deal with loss and grief?)
There are references to literary classics (and the author’s note at the end mentions some of them and also the conception of the project, its development, and its different incarnations), to historical artefacts and works of art, and the distinctive voice of the narrator (a mixture of wit, matter-of-factness and the odd flash of dark humour), the quality of the writing, and the story combine to make it a compelling and disquieting read. After reading this book, I’ve become very intrigued by the author, and I’m curious about his previous novel, as the protagonist of that book was also called Jim. That Jim was quickly becoming old and this one is determined to live forever. I wonder…
I recommend this book to people looking for an exceptional voice and a unique story, who don’t mind being challenged by difficult topics, dark subjects, and stories that don’t fit neatly into a clear genre. If you like to experiment and are looking for something different, I encourage you to give it a go.