Nethereal by Brian Niemeier is a different kind of book. I'm not the most well-read in science fiction, but then, this isn't totally a science fiction book. It's not really fantasy, either. But then, it's also not horror. It's a mixture of all those genres as if they are the same thing. Genre boundaries are sort of an annoyance to me as it is, so reading a book that just does what it wants to do was a real treat.
Imagine if Abraham Merritt read Galactic Patrol and said "Pshaw! I can do that!" then while writing his space opera he read Dune and watched some classic anime and decided to throw those in too. Of course, he couldn't do any of that being that he died so long ago, but that's not my point. That's the closest I can come to describing what reading Nethereal is like.
Imagine a universe where space pirates descend into space hell accompanied by a strange band of rogues and misfits that might not all be what they seem. This hell is split into levels, each as strange as the last as our main characters begin to learn more and more that maybe this job was not only a bad idea, but a horrifying mistake. Oh, and they have to deal with horrifying monstrosities from the depths at every turn. Can't forget about those, can we?
The story follows a core group of four pirates: Jaren Peregrine, the captain of the pirates who has tunnel vision on whatever task he sets his mind to, and his second-in-command, Nakvin, a woman with a lot more to her than there may be, are the main characters. There is also Teg Cross, a hired mercenary who has as quick a sword arm as he does a mouth, and Deim, their apprentice steersman, a young man with ore passion than sense, who fill out the main cast quite well. There are other characters, but getting into them would probably spoil the story. Needless to say, you are always wondering just what each character is really playing at even when they're playing it straight.
This isn't just a puff piece, however. The reviewer takes the time to offer constructive criticism:
Now, for the negative points, of which there aren't many. The plot bogged down a bit in the middle and became a bit convoluted before finally straightening out for the last part of the book. I'm a bit of a slow reader, but I almost lost myself in the middle a few times. Some characters also sort of vanish then reappear, leaving you to wrack your brain to remember what they were doing when you last saw them hundreds of pages ago. The climax is also short considering it took almost 600 pages to get to it, as well.
Fair enough. It's bad form to argue with well-meant and honest criticism, so I'll simply inform readers that, as JD himself notes, he reviewed the book's first edition. The issues he mentions have been largely addressed in the second.
Where the author most succeeded, however, was the sense of dread and unease about the entire journey. Hell, of course, is not a pleasant place anyone would want to visit, but space hell is not even a place you want to think about. Demons and baals at every turn, mysterious and horrifying landscapes, even death isn't an escape from the torture, and those who revel in their basic instincts come to regret them soon enough. Though this is a space opera, it manages a bit of thought on basic morality along the way giving it a nice touch you wouldn't expect from such a story.
Of course, as I said, this is a space opera through and through. You have dramatic reveals, over the top fights and encounters, a story that twists as it goes, and an ending where everything (more or less) falls into place. Just don't go into it expecting unblessed ray guns and in-depth politics, but Workings and damnation instead and you're on the right track.
As a classic anime fan, I couldn't help but picture this as a 26 episode series by Studio Deen made way back in 1992 or so. This is not a criticism. That is not a feel anime can even get down anymore, but a point for the book in matching a feel and spirit that isn't really done today. I'm not sure if non-anime fans would get as much out of the Nethereal's style as I did, but that does help to make it totally unique and wrapped in with the world-building that Brian Niemeier sets out to accomplish. By the end, you just want a second season right away. Unlike that season 2 of Outlaw Star I've been waiting around fifteen years for, the Soul Cycle series already has a second book out, Soul Dancer, which I hope to get to eventually.
My comment: This review hits the mark dead center. JD has clearly been influenced by many of the same sources as me, because he nails the tone, mood, and style peculiar to late 80s/early 90s anime that inform Nethereal.
Which is now in its revised and expanded second edition, which you can buy here.