Greetings. My name is Nathan and I have been a Puppy since the initial Campaign to End Puppy Related Sadness. In addition to being a Wrong Fan, I have been a chemist, a satellite controller, and an office drone. I’ll also add failed writer and unrepentant bookworm to that list. Thanks to an English literature course in college, I tend to read books with an eye on how different works shape each other. Think of the approach as a grown-up version of TV Tropes without the obsessive need to pigeonhole every little thing into a pithy phrase.
But enough about me. On to Nethereal. There will be spoilers.
Chapter 1: Navkin lays in bed with Shan, unable to sleep. She has sedated Shan and waits for the venom to take effect. At an opportune moment, she steals away to work on Shan’s warded safe. Using her Workings, she defeats the protections and cracks the safe. Shan confronts Navkin, and using his own Working, tries to kill her using the same forces used to propel spacecraft between planets, but a monster mauls him to death before he can complete his spell. Navkin leaves with the contents of the safe.
The first chapter introduces us to Navkin, a Steersman, thief, and major viewpoint character for the rest of the novel. We also first see the Clarke’s Law magic for Nethereal in the Magi and Steersman, whose ranks include Navkin and Shan. Using wizardry for space travel is not a new concept, but it identifies Nethereal’s universe as a spiritual one instead of the materialism of hard science fiction. It is too early to determine if the Workings of the Steersmen are soft magic, like that used by Tolkien, or the hard, rules-based magic of Sanderson.
As you read on, remember the Gen, a despised people, and the monster at the end of the chapter.
Chapter 2: On the planet of Tharis, Teg Cross, swordarm for space pirate Jaren Peregrine, travels across fields of ash in a drifter car. A sandstorm forces him to seek shelter, where he sees an ominous thin man in a suit and mirror-black shoes standing out in the wasteland. The storm passes, and so does the thin man. Spooked, Teg arrives at Sojourner’s Cut to fence stolen goods for his captain. After making the arrangements for the exchange of goods, he is knocked-out from behind by an unseen assailant.
Teg’s mind wanders during his trip across the ash, providing some key world-building exposition. The Steersman’s Guild is further developed as enforcing an ironclad monopoly on the ether needed for space travel. Jaren Peregrine flaunts this monopoly while he gathers men and material for a revolt against the Guild on Tharis. The cosmology of Nethereal appears in the terms Cardinal Spheres, Middle Stratum, and Nine Circles, which invoke both the Nine Worlds of Norse myth and the Nine Circles of Dante’s Inferno.
The thin man is eerily reminiscent of the Men in Black. Gamers might be forgiven for thinking of the thin men from XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Chapter 3: Near the end of his voyage from Mithgar, Marshal Malachi prepares to assume the post of Guild minister of Tharis. During the briefing from the outgoing minister, Malachi confronts him with information linking the minister to smuggling. Malachi also insinuates that the minister’s support of piracy led to Shan’s death. The real quarry, however, is Jaren Peregrine’s band of space pirates. Malachi blackmails the minister into helping break the piracy ring.
Cultured, competent, and Machiavellian, Malachai is the youngest Master Steersman in the Guild. Discworld’s Havelock Vetinari and Honor Harrington’s Victor Cachat would be proud. I expect to see reverses in the fortunes of Jaren’s pirate crew, beyond whatever trouble Teg is currently in.
Jaren’s reputation grows, chapter by chapter. Not only is he a smuggler and a revolutionary, the Guild actually considers him a threat as the Gen pirate is charismatic enough to rally supporters to his cause. Rebellion is now certain on Tharis, but we have yet to see if Jaren’s strategic acumen matches his charisma.
The name Mithgar confirms the influence of Norse myth on Nethereal. Since each of the Norse Nine worlds is the home of its own people, I expect to see more alien races besides the Gen to be revealed. Also introduced is the myth of Zadok and Thera, a pair of father and daughter gods eternally annihilating and transforming into each other. Nethereal is a spiritual universe where the supernatural is normal. It would be wise to pay attention to the myths.
Chapter 4: Navkin flees from the scene of her crime. Old memories of captivity, escape, and her involvement with the Peregrine family resurface. She returns to the pirates’ den and reports to Jaren. Navkin has obtained the coordinated for a weapons cache from Shan’s safe. Jaren intends to use the contents to equip an army against the Guild. But first Navkin must tend to Teg, who was shot in the back at the end of Chapter 2. During the treatment, Jaren interrogates Teg about the trip to Sojourner’s Cut, including the thin man in black.
Navkin is old, at least a hundred years old. During that time, she has served in turn as rescuer, mother, and sister to Jaren. Her escape from the Guild kicked off the chain of events that led to Jaren having the means –and the ship- to take revenge on the Guild. At this time, it is not certain if her long life is due to Guild magic or the technology of the Cardinal Spheres. She is also a conventional medical expert. I expected her to use her Workings to heal Teg, not antibiotics.
We meet Jaren for the first time. With waist-length red hair and a long tan coat, he resembles the shaggy-haired space captains of the golden age of anime space opera. Firefly fans might also notice that his coat is kind of a brownish color. Jaren is half Gen, and the last of a race genocided by the Guild during in war that was long over before Navkin was born. He possesses the intensity and bloody-mindedness of his Gen parentage. His internal dialogue reflects this, focusing solely on the strategy, logistics, and rage required for revenge.
Chapter 5: The captain of the freighter Sunspot confronts his mysterious recluse of a passenger, Van Mordechai. Since Mordechai boarded the ship, crew and passengers have been vanishing at an alarming rate. Viewing the unsettling Mordechai as a jinx, the captain wants to kick him off at the next port instead of continuing the voyage to Tharis. Later, the captain awakes from a nightmare of his dying crew. Life support is gone. He reaches for the lights but grabs a bitterly cold blade that shrivels his arm. Muttering about murder and mutilation, Mordechai confronts the captain about broken promises. He disappears, leaving the captain alone in the dark…
This chapter is one filled with implied horror, and is better experienced than summarized. That said, Thera’s star, around which Tharis orbits, is drawing a strange group of people towards it. Perhaps this is a sign that the gods of Nethereal play an active role in human events.
Chapter 6: At the pirate’s den, Teg goes to fetch Deim, the backup Steersman for the Shibboleth, Jaren’s ship. Deim awakens, but before he leaves for duty, he performs the morning rituals required of a devotee to Thera Souldancer. Afterward, the two of them board the Shibboleth, a black frigate with swept wings. Inside, they join the rest of Jaren’s crew as they plan to recover the weapons cache.
Every space pirate needs a spaceship. Jaren’s Shibboleth has a passing resemblance to Grumman’s X-29. Its name also comes from a story in the Old Testament, found in Judges 12. Suspected fleeing soldiers hiding among the Israelites were forced to say the word shibboleth. If the foreigners could not say the word correctly, they were slaughtered. The last member of a massacred race has named his spaceship after a massacre of hidden people. This is also not the first point of resonance with the Old Testament, as Malachi and Mordechai are names found within.
Deim’s faith is also significant, both in treatment and in plot. It is an odd faith in a goddess who has abandoned her universe, but Teg treats it as worthy of respect. Science fiction tends to treat religion with contempt, and fantasy is littered with plots that can be summed up as “Our god is an evil bastard. Let’s kill him.” It is refreshing to see a depiction of faith rooted in the ideas that it is real and it might actually be good. As for how it relates to the plot, well, as the sergeants used to say in classroom training, you will see this again.
As predicted, other alien races besides the Gen were mentioned.
Six chapters down, sixty to go. Since the next chapter begins an action sequence, I will pause here. Feel free to post your own observations in the comments below.