Take the good parts of Dune and Star Wars, mix them together with a heaping dollop of Dante, a dash of high fantasy, and a whole lot of horror, and you’re beginning to almost approach Brian Niemeier‘s self-published Nethereal, book one of his three-part Soul Cycle series.
Is it sci-fi? Is it science-fantasy?
Who cares? It’s fun.
Nethereal reads like the best console or pen-and-paper RPG you never played. Imagination abounds.
Fitting, as Brian is a figure in the burgeoning #PulpRevolution.
Nethereal focuses on space pirate Jaren Peregrine and the crew of his ship, the Shibboleth, as they seek revenge against the Guild, a quasi-governmental entity that dominates the Spheres (think: planets).
Jaren is half-Gen (think: Elf), and the Guild destroyed his race, and his family, and now they’ve got to pay. Chief among Jaren’s crew is mercenary Teg Cross, steersmen Deim Corsurunda and Nakvin (no last name given), and the mysterious Vaun Mordechai, a late addition with mysterious motives.
Pursued by the Guild, Jaren and crew meet a rebel force and end up commanding the mysterious, powerful Exodus, whose unsettling cargo takes them through the depths of hell . . . and beyond.
Even stranger is Elena, a half-woman, half-machine who appears to be the Exodus’ source of power.
I don’t want to spoil anything here, but suffice it to say Nethereal is one of the most imaginative works of fiction I’ve read in a long while.
And the heroes are–gasp!–heroic!
I do have nits to pick–this is the Internet, after all. Some of the characters are a little tough to connect with, particularly Jaren, who beyond single-mindedness really has little else going for him–I don’t quite get why he is such an inspiring leader. Deim is similarly inscrutable. And I did feel some of the characters’ attempts at glib humor fell flat.
The world and its structure, culture, and mythology is a little confusing too, though the glossary included helps, and things begin to make more sense as the story unfolds. And Marshal Malachi is a bit disappointing as a villain.
But the rest of the villains provide one of the deadliest, vilest, and flat-out creepy rogues gallery you’ll find most anywhere. Each player has their own goals and motivations–and reasons for stabbing their purported allies in the back.
So why do I say “science-fantasy”? Aside from the immortal Gen race, there is a substance called ether that the spaceships run on (hence the name “ether-runner”). This ether can also be manipulated via Workings (think: magic); indeed, it is through Workings that the steersmen control the ether-runners.
There’s also gun fighting, swordplay, warrior-priests, demons, the undead, body-swapping, necromancy, and heavy theological discussions about life, the soul, and everything else that matters.
The pacing is brisk, which helps a book of this scope keep from getting bogged down. And I can offer it the highest praise any book can get: Nethereal was incredibly difficult to put down. I cannot wait to start book two, Souldancer.