Chapter 61: Jaren shoots Zebel, who drops his father’s soul stone. Mephistophilis splits bodily from Teg and offers pardon. Vaun reveals that the baal wants to subvert the Last Working to his own ends. Mephistophilis attacks the crew of the Exodus, defeating each in turn until Vaun’s void drains the life from the demon. The baal reappears in Teg’s body and feeds the last soul stone to the oracle. A god breaks free from the altar in a flurry of geometric shapes.
Narr reveals himself as the secret head of the Steerman’s Guild to Malachi in attempt to talk the Guild master out of his revenge. When that fails, he blesses Malachi’s wish to slit Jaren’s throat.
The sacrifice of high prana Gen souls is designed to replace Thera with one-eyed Elathan as the god around which the Last Working is cast. Mephistophilis intends to follow Elathan out of the universe as he is tired of living in a universe that winding down like an old clockwork watch.
Chapter 62: Mephistophilis is still alive, having decoyed Jaren and Vaun into killing Teg so that he could complete the sacrifice. He flees towards Timtzum, where Zadok created the universe and where the Words of Creation are kept. Elena appears, warns everyone what could happen if Mephistophilis reaches the Words of Creation, and resurrects Teg. The crew chases after the demon lord, pursued by monsters.
To open the gate to the Ninth Circle, Navkin warps the city of the Eighth Circle into concentric rings. By spinning them in all directions like a gyroscope, the gate opens to a land of ice, sleet, and hail.
Vaun states that Thera is of the Void and Zadok of the Well, which aligns with traditional descriptions of yin and yang. However, the mythology of Nethereal states that Zadok and Thera are ever fated to kill and transform into each other, which might explain why Thera, in the form of Elena, has been connected to the light of the Well throughout the adventure.
The icy description of the Ninth Circle is similar to the frozen lake at the center of Dante’s Inferno.
Chapter 63: One last gate remains in the Ninth Circle, which takes the Exodus to Mithgar. They emerge in the midst of a battle the Navy’s rebels are losing to the Guild fleet. Jaren moves to support the rebel fleet, shattering the Guild formations. The Serapis and her supporting vessels emerge from hiding and ravage the Exodus, taunting Jaren on the comms. Jaren abandons ship in the Shibboleth alongside a shuttle presumed to be Elena’s. Meanwhile, the Exodus’s armor bulges and buckles under the Guild fire, breaking open to reveal the pale form of Elathan.
In hindsight, it does not surprise me that there was another gate in the Ninth Circle, or that it led to Mithgar. Dante left the frozen lake of his Inferno by climbing down Satan’s legs before climbing through a cavern to the Earth’s surface.
The armored angel/god once in the technological service to humanity but now berserk is similar to the secrets of Evangelion’s mecha.
Chapter 64: Given the choice between chasing the Shibboleth and destroying the Exodus, Malachi chooses the latter. Thus he has a front-row seat to a cosmic horror finslapping his supports into dust. Meanwhile, Jaren positions the Shibboleth behind the Serapis and fires on Elathan. The god of shipwreck charges the Serapis, worrying the ship like a rat before flinging it down to Mithgar’s surface. Elathan flies towards another gate in the stars, joined by Elena’s shuttle and remnants of the two battle fleets. Jaren orders the Shibboleth to pass through the gate. On the other side, they find the Mobius strip from Deim’s dream, complete with foreign words on its surface. Golden beams lance out, destroying many ship. The Shibboleth attempts to land, but is shot down.
The description of a baleen monster that is part whale and part ray recalls Sin from Final Fantasy X, although, as a 3-D Final Fantasy game, the resemblance is likely accidental. It’s been a while since I’ve played FF VI, which does have direct influence on the creation of Nethereal, so I don’t remember if there is a beast similar to it in that game.
Malachi stares into the eye of Elathan before the attack. It is uncertain if he passed his SAN check…
The Shibboleth flies through one last gate, somewhat similar to the transition in the Divine Comedy from the Purgatorio on Earth to the Paradiso of Heaven.
Chapter 65: Jaren and his crew leave behind the wreck of the Shibboleth to pursue Mephistophilis through the golden streets of Tzintsum. The Gen captain confronts the baal, which devolves into a fight. Mephistophilis trounces Jaren and Teg, saying that he would have given them honors for their act of service. As he prepares to leave the universe, Navkin sacrifices her hellhound to give time for Teg to recover and rush the baal. Jaren manages to shoot Mephistophilis with a rodcaster. Although Tzimtzum is awash in molten metal, the baal is not dead. Jaren tells everyone to run and front loads his rodcaster. Both baal and Gen disappear inside a small sun.
Elena appears, saying goodbye as she must leave with Elathan. Otherwise, to contain Thera’s soul within herself, she must read the Words of Creation and end the world. If another person reads them, she might be able to stay. As the words can only be read by a necromancer, Deim must beat Vaun to the Last Working.
Tzimtzum is the golden city that Jaren dreamed of.
Necromancer here means Teth user, which explains why Elena, as Thera’s soul, can read the words.
There is a passing resemblance between Mephistophilis and Sulaiman, the blond priest of Midras. The baal’s statement, “Midras is gone”, is also of interest. I do not see the two characters as being the same, but sharing characteristics of the people that worshiped Midras. Another name to watch for in Souldancer, just to see if –and likely when- Midras takes on a more prominent role in the story.
Zebel’s siring of Navkin makes Elena a motherless daughter of a fatherless mother. No male genetic material made Navkin, while Elena was a combination of two male fathers’ genetic material born spliced in Navkin’s egg cell. This symmetry was probably necessary to prepare the vessel body for Thera’s soul.
Chapter 66: Dei falls for Vaun’s decoys. Elena dispels them, while he runs towards the temple at the center of Tzimtzum. On a tower reminiscent of Babel, Vaun prepares to read the Working. Deim attempts to stop him, but Vaun casts him down from the tower. The First Working is read. Deim awakens and looses an echo of the Working stored within the artifact on his belt at Elathan, killing the god. Fire races along the cables connecting Elena to Elathan, consuming them.
As the ruined streets burn, Elena tells Navkin and Teg, the only survivors of the Exodus’s trip through hell, to flee. As they reach safety through a portals in an arch, the Void in the form of Vaun confronts her. Elena has Thera’s soul, while Vaun has her power. The Goddess of the Well faces off against the God of the Void. She manages to open a gate to the Void and seals Vaun within, replenishing the Well with prana in the process.
Fire consumes Tzimtzum.
Finding references to two Biblical stories on the walls of Tzimtzum is curious, as Brian Niemeier insists that the universe is not our own. The stories are the Fall of Man and Tower of Babel, both of which end in a scattering of people from a homeland and curses laid upon a people. It is also curious that the 66th chapter of Nethereal ends the tale with the advent of a god and fire falling on heaven and the earths of the Middle Stratum, as the 66th book of the Protestant Bible is the Revelation of John the Apostle, but that might also be coincidence.
Epilogue: After the fires that consumed Mithgar subsided, a survivor pulls himself free from his shelter and screams in rage.
If this were not the first book in the series, the sudden ending of Nethereal would work against the story by not providing a satisfactory ending. Traditional five act structure gives time for reflection by the characters after the climax (or resolution in the diagram), typically devoting the same about of time to the ending as was given the introduction. However, Nethereal uses the extended introduction typical of two-cour anime and ends right after the confrontation between Elena and Vaun is finished. As a hook for Souldancer, though, this works. Where many writers, such as John Ringo, tend to treat their last chapter and epilogue as denouement, this felt more like a Marvel post-credits scene.
Once again, Nethereal is not a book that rewards close reading so much as demands it. As such, I must recommend the paperbound version over the ebook format, as the ebook tends to promote skimming. Even after the what was a reread for me, I still feel like I missed more than I managed to catch.
I am impressed at how little description is needed in Nethereal to create its haunting mood. Instead of detailing the setting and action with the clarity of a photograph, Niemeier paints with broad strokes, allowing each reader to fill in the gaps with their own mind. This makes the horrors of the Nine Circles more vivid as no written description or visual image can beat that created in the reader's mind. This approach is used to great effect by Hitchcock and other thriller directors in the days before directors could rely on special effects for scares, as the monster that cannot be seen is often scarier than the monster that is seen. Most anime influenced fiction swings instead towards more explicit description as they try to mimic the visual nature of anime.
Had I the time, I would have liked to delve in detail into such topics as story structure, anime influences, and how the dueling genre conventions of the Master Thief and the Pirate Captain shaped how the story of Nethereal was told. I did touch on some of these topics in the read through, but I either scratched the surface or could develop the ideas further. Nethereal is so content rich that there was always something new to follow in each chapter.
I would also like to investigate how Final Fantasy VI influenced Nethereal and Souldancer, but that will require a read of Souldancer as Nethereal only has resonances to the first half of the game's plot.
Next month's selection is Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny.