Adam Smith writes of Nethereal:
Five stars. The most unique sci-fi story I have experienced in years
This book does a lot of things right. I enjoyed it and I've already bought the second book, and look forward to seeing where the story goes.
The author defies tropes and takes story set pieces well beyond where you think they're going to go. This is not a tired rehashing of rearranged tropes that most of sci-fi has become. The author brings fresh ideas to the table time and again. Many times I reached a new plot reveal only to gasp or exclaim, "Oh F@&$!" Brian Niemeier pulls no punches and does not look away when decency would otherwise demand it. This book will take you to uncomfortable places, but it does so tastefully and in an entertaining manner.
As to the content, the author is obviously well versed in both very old sci-fi (Nethereal hearkening back to the dawning of the genre and tasting strongly of Lovecraft) and also in theology, based on the intricacy of his world building. No tired borrowing from real-world religions here, instead we see the frenzied fever dreams of a madman standing as divine creation, and it matches the setting perfectly. That setting is vastly unique and incredibly deep, with a mountain of stories waiting to be told within it. I look forward to seeing what other stories this author pulls out of his world for us to experience.
There were some minor bits which left me with mixed feelings, as with any book. Particularly two things: a main character seems to act far outside of character during the second act in trusting someone very quickly, and a moment late in the second act ends with a strange reveal that seems to come from nowhere and has no explanation so it comes across as contrived. Given the depth of care taken in building the rest of the setting, I suspect that the author knows the answers to these two questions. Neither moment ruined my suspension of disbelief, but they did stick out to me as the two weak points of the narrative. As a reader, both could have easily been addressed in small scenes that just show me what the characters are feeling and thinking, and I would have felt satisfied. I also wish that the glossary had been included at the beginning, because there are some hefty metaphysical concepts that aren't explained as plainly as other books might do. That adds to the mystery and horror as the reader tries to infer the way things work, but it was a relief to finally get some solid answers at the end. Being that this is the author's first published novel (I do believe), I can forgive these minor points and focus on the rest of the story, which certainly has enough action and intensity to engage even the most picky of readers (myself).
The book deceives you a bit, masquerading as a story about a few characters on a horrifying adventure when really it's the culmination of a plan to hatch something new. This book is the story of a birth; that newly birthed thing, perhaps, is an entire series with this initial book as it's base. Go into this book expecting it to be the introduction to a world, rather than simply one contained story that opens and closes cleanly, with all answers wrapped up neatly inside.
I've got a high stack of books waiting to be read, but I bought the sequel to this book and put it on top of the stack. Is there a better review than that?Not for my money. It's a joy to see readers venturing outside the New York science fiction ghetto and having fun for a change.
Next up: Paul's review of the Dragon Award-winning sequel to Nethereal, Souldancer.
Five stars. A Successor To Herbert Who Learned From His Mistakes
Nethereal reminded me of Dune for a generation that had grown up on D&D and anime: same sense of being in the middle of a deep story with rich history, same almost maddening vagueness when it came to backstory, same epic this-is-where-the-crazy-all-started setup. And, like Dune, it worked wonderfully!
Souldancer is nothing like that.Author's note: Agreed. SD is a totally different beast.
Oh sure, it's set 20 years after, has a few of the same characters and references to others, and is still maddeningly (delightfully) vague about the socio-religious layout, but it's a smaller, much more personal story. Nethereal had the same concept: a man seeking to avenge his father and his people set against an all controlling edifice, but that kind of story almost has to be epic if it's not to be a failure. Souldancer is quieter: a love story, almost unconventional except in the persons of the lovers and the currents set in motion in Nethereal that drag them along in their wake. It is a much more accessible story, I think, despite how much I enjoyed its predecessor.
Two things I want to specifically mention: visualizations and exposition. Mr. Niemeier's visualizations are wonderfully fleshed out and vivid. I compare this series to Dune because both Herbert and Niemeier described worlds of technology so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic, but so seemingly ancient that it was not just commonplace, but accepted and even a little dated. Herbert introduced artillery as his great secret weapon, commonplace to us but almost wholly unknown to the Dune universe, while he describes force shields, space flight, and everything else as utterly commonplace. Niemeier has that same mystique, but he does not fall into the trap that ensnared Herbert: he doesn't feel the need to explain what is commonplace to the reader.
Which brings me to exposition. Dune created a rich, ancient world almost completely by implication. Herbert subsequently spoiled it (in my opinion), by trying to make too much explicit in the subsequent books, losing the sense of mystery he had so carefully cultivated. Brian Niemeier avoids this trap by letting the commonplace remain commonplace unless a character would realistically discuss such a thing. By introducing characters who are out of their element, he can exposit as the story requires, which is an old trick but one that is too often abused by authors who are desperate to show off how cool their created universe really is. Mr. Niemeier chose to be more subtle, for which I thank him.You're welcome, Paul. It's nice to find someone who gets why I don't feel the need to hold my readers' hands. Impatient people might prefer to have everything spelled out. Patient people know better.
Few things exhaust my interest faster than a story that goes like: "Something strange is going on--and it's this!"
Finally, this book was awarded a Dragon for Horror. Full disclosure, I voted for it and think it deserved to win, but this is not the horror of Stephen King: there is no need to abuse, maim, and kill beloved characters just to jerk the reader's emotional chain. Which isn't to say that doesn't happen (and Brian, if you kill off Teg in Secret Kings, I will be VERY unhappy), but it always feels like it serves more of a purpose than mood-setting. No, the horror is like that of Iain Banks, without the late Mr. Banks need to be over the top.
So, if you are a fan of Herbert and Banks, I highly recommend this book. You don't have to start with Nethereal, but it certainly helps and I would recommend it regardless.I may have answered the question posed in the previous review too hastily. Favorable comparisons to Frank Herbert are tough to beat.
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