Castalia House Reviews Nethereal

Castalia House

Castalia House Blog proprietor and Hugo-nominated Appendix N mastermind Jeffro Johnson brings his encyclopedic knowledge of classic SFF to bear on Nethereal.
If you want to understand the sea change event that’s currently transforming the science fiction and fantasy scene, then this is basically required reading.
The most striking thing about it is of course the fact that it doesn’t really fit into any of the standard genre bins that have steadily ossified over the past four decades. And that makes sense, really: an independent author pulling himself up by his bootstraps completely outside of the usual publishing and book store chain system does not have to play by the rules.
So what is Nethereal exactly…? Well… it’s sort of like a Traveller campaign where the navigators are magic-users pretty well straight out of an old school D&D game. But then it’s filtered through a whole pile of action movies, video games, comic books, and anime. I’d say it’s quite clearly a product of the Appendix N Genertation Gap. Unlike John C. Wright’s work, you’re not going to see explicit references to the classic science fiction and fantasy style elements of the pulp era. Nevertheless, there’s something different about it, though.
My approach to genre is in total agreement with Larry Correia's: hard and fast genre categories were invented by and for big chain bookstore managers. Write what you want, and let them worry about which box to put it in.

Back to Jeffro's review, where he compares and contrasts Nethereal with great works of the pulp era.
I have to say, though, the frequency of over the top action scenes is reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s stories. But you don’t see Brian taking the time to develop the sort of emotional beats that would establish the sterling character of the protagonists in contrast to the cravenness and despicableness of their foes. This is probably the biggest difference between Nethereal and writers like Howard, Vance, and Brackett.
Jeffro's not wrong here. With a tagline like "Magic space pirates in space hell", it's a safe bet that you won't find any paragons of virtue among the main cast. In fact, the main characters of Nethereal might qualify as Villain Protagonists.

There's even a cosmological reason for the lack of conventionally moral characters. Rather early on it's established that the White Well, source of all good, is running dry. Jaren and his crew definitely aren't saints, but they're the best the universe has to work with.
A close second to this is the almost complete lack of old style romance. This is not the sort of story like where A. Merritt’s Leif Langdon or Leigh Brackett’s Matthew Carse gets the girl in the end. The model for storytelling here is right in line with present day norms; rather than focusing on a single heroic character, the tale switches between the perspectives of an ensemble of characters. Just as in the first season of, say, The Flash (2014), the ultimate theme is much more about “our awesomely dysfunctional family of weirdos” doing awesome things than it is about the traditional hero’s journey thing.
An "awesomely dysfunctional family of weirdos doing awesome things"!

I love it so much, I'm stealing it for the series' third book :)

Seriously, Jeffro just opened my eyes to a core theme of the Soul Cycle that I'd missed for years. To paraphrase Adrian Veidt, only the very best reviewers can accomplish that!

It's entirely valid to view the whole series as the saga of a bunch of misfits who go through literal and figurative hell to become the royal family/new pantheon of a universe that was screwed over by its old rulers and gods.
[Pulp heroes] tend to be ordinary, straight-ahead, plain vanilla, white bread, square jawed “regular guy” types. And that archetype is nowhere to be found in Nethereal. Indeed, the characters come off like GURPS PC’s with way too many character points handed out from session to session and a game master that simply cannot say no when they decide to spend them on completely insane stuff that ought to cause the campaign to fly apart at the seams.
Close! We used AD&D 2nd Ed. with the Skills and Powers and Spells and Magic players' option supplements to game out Nethereal's outline. You're spot on about the character points, though.
This is not to say that Nethereal has nothing in common with novels from the pulp fantasy era. Just as in Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter or Margaret St. Clair’s The Shadow People, cosmology is a first class element of the work. In fact, I would say that the gradual revelation of the nature and structure of reality is the defining element of the story just as it is in Philip Jos√© Farmer’s works. But while Appendix N works are pretty thin on the sort of thing that could really flesh out the sprawling multi-planar milieu of the default setting of the AD&D game, this book shows how to take the whole idea of “a paladin in hell” and crank it to eleven.
Thanks! The comparison to a hometown hero is flattering.

Relevant side note: I'm good buddies with the local comic book store manager. He told me the story of how, when Farmer died, his grand kids rolled into town, ransacked his house, and sold off most of his stuff. My buddy knows because they tried to sell him a bunch of books from Farmer's personal library. The manager knew that Farmer had left several unpublished works behind, so he asked the great author's heirs about their granddad's papers.

They reportedly answered, "Oh, we threw all of that stuff away."

My friend had to fight the urge to dive across the counter and murder them.
In short, this is the kitchen sink book’s kitchen sink book. It is a product of a culture in which BadWrong Fun™ has become a way of life. This is exactly the sort of thing that has disappeared from mainstream fantasy over the years, but which could have been taken for granted as normal back when the fantasy tabletop role-playing hobby was just starting to take off.
If Nethereal is WrongFun, I don't want to be right. And neither, I think, does Jeffro.

He goes on to determine whether Nethereal qualifies as Weird Fiction in the original 1920s sense of the term, back before the genres we know today had been clearly partitioned off. I highly recommend reading it. The man is a true scholar with an unerring sense of the field's history and development.

I even get my own fiction category out of it. Nethereal shall henceforth be known as Niemeierian SFF.
Bonus: Nathan Housley from the Puppy of the Month Book Club graces the comments section with his presence to discuss Nethereal with Jeffro, and he even offers a slight point of disagreement. Don't miss the chance to watch two giants of SF geekery holding court. Also making a special appearance is recent Geek Gab guest star author Sky Hernstrom.

Speaking of the Puppy of the Month Book Club, the aforementioned Nathan Housley continues doing yeoman's work in his continuing Nethereal review [Spoiler Alert!]. I felt that his analysis of chapter 30 warranted additional comment.
On the Geek Gab podcast, Brian Niemeier has repeatedly said that his inspirations aren’t the classics of science fiction literature, but movies, games, comics, and other media.  Ydahl is a clear example of this.  Her description as a young orphaned flower girl from the Mithgar slums –complete with brown hair- lines up with that of Aerith Gainsborough of the Playstation video game Final Fantasy VII.  Well, at least until Ydhal draws her knife.  This isn’t the only nod to Final Fantasy VII.  Navkin’s summoned beast shares the lion-wolf appearance of Red XIII, another player character in the game.  Both game and book share a similar synthesis of magic and high technology.  And in both Final Fantasy 7 and Nethereal, we follow the adventures of a group of freedom fighters struggling against a multinational corporation headquartered in the capital of Mithgar that holds a monopoly on a source of energy that drains the vitality out of the world.  But inspiration is not mere copying; Ydahl is an unrepentant serial killer in the vein of Jack the Ripper and Sweeny Todd, and not the mischievous magical girlfriend that Aerith is.
I've refrained from weighing in on the accuracy of my reviewers' analyses at their web sites, even though commenters have shown interest in my opinion. But since we're here at my blog, I'll address a few of Nathan's theories.

First, he's pretty much got my general influences pegged. The only classic SF book that's had a major influence on my writing is Dune. Otherwise, I draw much more from the sources he mentioned. Well done.

Also, the connection between Ydahl and Industrial Revolution-era serial killers is well noted.

However, any resemblance between Nethereal and Final Fantasy VII is largely coincidental. In the 2D vs. 3D video game debate, I come down squarely within the 2D camp. And when it comes to Final Fantasy, the 16-bit era is my hands down favorite.

As a professional courtesy to my esteemed reviewers, I advise taking a closer look at Final Fantasy VI. All of the themes that Nathan correctly pointed out were present in FF VI, and one of the reasons why FF VII is among my least favorite games in the series is that it blatantly copies its own predecessor.

Besides, Aerith is much better-looking than Ydahl is.

So don't fail to check out Nathan's in-depth Nethreal review, which as of this writing is up to chapters 37-42.

To read more about an awesomely dysfunctional family of weirdos doing awesome things, buy the first two books in the Soul Cycle, available now from Amazon. Now's your chance to get them read in time for Book III's release.



  1. "Awesomely dysfunctional family of weirdos doing awesome things," could also describe you, Sky, Jeffro, Cirsova and the rest of the new pulp writers, too, you know...