The setting of Nethereal is different. Very different. Mention has been made that it blends fantasy and science fiction in a way that harkens back to the days when science fiction and fantasy were considered one and the same. This is true, but it doesn’t really help nail down where on the spectrum the setting truly lies. Consider Disney’s animated film Treasure Planet, which was for all practical effects, was simply the novel Treasure Island dressed up in a steam-punk style of science fiction. Yes, it featured planets and aliens, but the setting and plot were no different from an age of sail adventure. The setting for Nethereal on the other hand, could not exist without both the science fiction and the fantasy aspects. The two are intertwined in ways that go well beyond the cosmetic.
This is not a science fiction novel that uses, ‘a wizard did it’, as a crutch to explain every instance where the action violates the laws of science. Instead, the magic in Nethereal works according to consistent and easily understood principles that go beyond, ‘because it was necessary to the plot’.
The nearest parallel that leaps to mind is perhaps that of the Warhammer 40K universe. Before we get too deep into this comparison, understand that Games Workshop has licensed a large number of tie-in novels that range in quality from excellent to Hugo Award worthy. This is not a discussion of merit, just one of setting and flavor.
For both setting, spaceships all have a bridge and cargo holds and corridors and blast each other into smithereens using weapons that feel like lasers and missiles. Space wizards tap into a flow of energy – here they tap into prana where 40K wizards tap into the stuff of raw chaos – to create effects not possible through science. In both cases hokey religions really are a good match for a blaster at your side. What’s more, a decent sword at your side is also a good match for a trusty sidearm.As with the 40K novels, simple naming conventions help remind the reader that this universe is like our own, but different. The space pirate captain doesn’t wield a sword, he wields a splintersword. That word doesn’t really have any meaning beyond, ‘it’s like a sword, but it has a power boost that makes it valuable in a science fiction setting.’ We don’t need to know what that edge is, just that we’re talking about something more than a sharp hunk of steel.
The creative setting, and the consistent approach to the rules of that setting, is both blessing and curse. On the one hand, it allows a setting that is familiar enough to feel comfortable and yet creative enough to feel new and different. On the other hand, the complexities and default assumptions involved take a little getting used to. Doing so is complicated by two things, the slow reveal of the rules and the need to come to grips with the setting while also getting a handle on the plot and characters.
As Nathan said in an earlier post:
I am impressed on how Nethereal avoids the dreaded exposition dump. Other authors have spent entire chapters setting up worldbuilding, or worse, brought the plot to a screening halt to provide key information to the reader. Nethereal uses a more metered approach, by stretching out explanations over the course of chapters, introducing new facts only when pertinent to the story without disrupting the action. And, in a tale that has already had thievery, murder, assassinations, dungeon crawls, police raids, running gun fights between ships, and kidnapping attempts before the main plot kicks into gear, there’s a lot of action. And the metered approach only adds to the mystery of the tale.
For my money, that’s one too many mysteries at the same time. The mystery of the plot and character was sufficient. Adding in the mysteries of the setting detracted from this reader’s experience.
To be honest, that isn’t so much a complaint about the book as it is an admission of my own liabilities as a reader. At the risk of making this review personal, most of my reading occurs at the end of a long day, after the work is put to bed, the kids wound down, and the house put back together. More often than not, that means reading in bed with the sandman cramming handfuls of magic dust under my eyelids – not the most conducive setting for sussing out the intertwined intricacies of setting, plot, and characters.
Those are great things, but this book just has too much of it presented in a ‘sink or swim’ manner. This reader largely sank, and it was only around the midpoint of the book, when all the different aspects started to gel in my mind that the book really took off. This series might benefit from a short story or two off in a corner of the universe with a more compact plot. Those often feel like filler stories, but in a challenging series like the Soul Cycle, giving readers a chance to splash around in the shallow end and get used to the water might provide an easier entry for casual readers.