Recently, I read and really enjoyed Part I of Brian Niemeier‘s three-part Soul Cycle series, Nethereal. Having read Part II, Souldancer, I can say that Brian improves upon nearly every aspect of the already impressive Nethereal, creating one of the most memorable sci-fi worlds I have had the pleasure to be invited into.
Mild spoilers for Nethereal are ahead, so if you plan on reading the series yourself–which I strongly recommend that you do–you might want to skim or otherwise skip most of this review.
(Wow . . . what kind of writer tells his readers not to read his blog? There can be only one: this guy!)
Souldancer picks up some twenty years after Nethereal, focusing on the fate of the planet Mithgar in the aftermath of the Cataclysm that ended Book I. Xander Sykes, member of the nomadic Nesshin tribe and possessor of a strange power, is exiled from his own clan by his father. He eventually goes on a mission with Gen ambassador Damus Greystone and his doglike malakh companion Nahel, accompanied by a wandering Guildmaster, in search of pre-cataclysm relics hidden in Mithgar’s wastes.
And the story gets wilder from there. But in a good way.
The set-up is quick, deftly executed, and keeps the story rolling. But I’d rather let you discover the plot on your own and speak about sequels generally, and why Souldancer is one of that rare breed that is better than the original.
In Souldancer, Brian improves upon nearly everything that worked about Nethereal, and with a cast made up of almost entirely new characters. Let’s go over the two big reasons Souldancer works: a deeper exploration of Nethereal‘s themes and raising the stakes:
Brian doesn’t ignore or gloss over things he brought up in Nethereal. Instead, he takes explores them in ways that make his world richer.
Ever wonder what the deal with this world’s mythology and religion is? Thera, Zadok, and the rest? Wonder no more, because Brian provides more clues as to their struggle, and introduces new deities and the way they exert influence on the world.
Confused about ether and workings and other types of power, or wanted to see more of them?
How about all of those Gen in Avalon? What’s their deal?
Even having a character be a Nesshin–a group discussed but never encountered in Nethereal–brilliantly lifts the curtain on a world we were only previously offered tantalizing peeks.
And we get to see Mithgar, beyond just a few scenes set in its capital city, Ostrith! Sure, the planet’s a smoldering wreck of its former glory, but still! While the action is mostly confined to this one planet, the setting has enough strangeness to make it its own character.
Fear not: Some old friends and enemies do return, just not necessarily the way you remembered them from the first book.
The way Brian fits the new pieces in with the old to hint at the picture to come in Book III is nothing short of masterful. This is what sequels are supposed to do: explore the world deeper.
Nethereal was, at its core, a tale of revenge and a search for belonging. Through Jaren’s quest to smash the Guild, he and his crew were caught up in forces that took them through hell and back. While Souldancer also features misfits in Xander and Astlin, both seeking their place in the world, the stakes are much higher than a deal with the devil.
How can anything be bigger than that, you ask?
How about megalomaniacs attempting, litereally, to become God?
I will say no more than to hang on for a bumpy ride.
Coreelated to this point is the writing. Souldancer flows smoothly, the banter and character interactions work better, and danger lurks around every corner.
Seriously: These characters never seem to catch a moment’s rest. In a big book as this, you’d think it would grow tiring, but even when there is a lull, an omnipresent sense of danger permeates things that you find yourself wondering when the other shoe will drop.
And drop it does. Many times.
One final point on the writing: The characters all have their own aims, often hidden from each other, which causes friction even when all you want is for the damned fools to work together. Compelling stuff.
Oh, and there’s time travel.
If it sounds like I’m gushing about this book, it’s becasue I am. Buy the whole series and read it. If Book III, The Secret Kings, can live up to what came before it, I am looking forward immensely to the payoff and resolution of all these plot threads.
See, one thing Brian is is economical. Every scene has a point. Every subplot matters. Things that happened in Book I, things that were seemingly insignificant, have huge implications in Souldancer. And yet it doesn’t feel tidy. My hat is off to Brian for pulling this off.
Alas, nothing is perfect. My biggest, and really my only, gripes with Souldancer are things that I had an issue with in Nethereal. First, some of the mythology is still pretty confusing, which isn’t that different than the Greek or Norse or Egyptian stories, but it still made my head spin at times. And second, some of the action scenes, where those with magical abilities are doing magical things, or those taking place in realms beyond the physical, were likewise a bit difficult to follow.
But it all still worked. I cannot recommend this book, or this series, highly enough. Buy it. Read it. Enjoy it. And tell your friends.
Next up: The Secret Kings