Book Review: I, The One by Dominika Lein

A “universe of souls where manifestation is a literal thought away and the Strong-Willed harshly rule”. . .

An etheric plane between dimensions with no rules save that the weak will be consumed . . .

Such is the setting of I, the One, the debut work from author Dominika Lein.

Lein posits a world some souls do not move on to paradise or ultimate rest upon death, instead ending up in The Other Side, a Wild West free-for-all where the strong rule. Niman finds himself in the thrall of the spider-like Hanhoka, his Guide, who teaches him and the mysterious Katilo how to find and consume souls from multiple dimensions . . . though Niman himself has no interest in doing so.

Still, he is tasked with training Meelik, a lizard-like lik, how to survive in The Other Side, in the hopes of revealing Meelik’s guide, who has something that Hanhoka desparately wants.

It’s an interesting set up that becomes all the more poignant when Niman realizes that he’s not ready to meekly submit to the will of those stronger than him.

All told, I enjoyed I, the One. I had to read it twice, though–and at 48 pages, it’s quick enough to do just that in one sitting.

My first time through, I felt bewildered and cheated, as if I struggled through pages of difficult description and confusing action just to arrive at an inconclusive, ambiguous ending. “What the hell was this?” I thought to myself, frustrated at both Lein for creating something that should be in my wheelhouse but wasn’t, and at myself for not fully grasping such a short, albeit dense, story.

Then I read it again after several weeks and wow, I have reversed my previous opinion. Lein does an excellent job creating her strange setting and the lost souls–some pure, some malevolent–who inhabit it.

Here’s what tripped me up at first: It’s difficult to write about a spectral–or “etheric”–setting and have the reader understand what’s going on. Lein does as good a job of this as any writer I’ve come across with descriptions just vivid enough to avoid being overdone, hinting at the edges of what Niman sees and experiences and allowing the reader to fill in the rest.

Lein also hints at a larger world, of rules and rulers, of what happens to these seemingly lost souls who end up in The Other Side when they die, and why. I’d be interested to learn more about this, world, should Lein decide to revisit it. And Niman proves an interesting character; the bits of his backstory Lein provides make him appear to be sympathetic and pathetic at once, making his steely resolve all the more impressive, and heroic.

And I think that might be the point of I, the One. I don’t presume to speak for Lein, who clearly has a voice of her own within the burgeoning pulp revolution movement. Or maybe she’s superversive. I don’t know. All I know is that a setting, and an ending, that I found bleak and nihilistic at first blush contained a glimmer of hope. Heroism is not dead in The Other Side, just dormant. And ultimately, reading I, the One for a second time, I do think that’s the theme Lein was going for.

I do hope that Lein gives us another glimpse at The Other Side and its inhabitants. I’m looking forward to more of her work, but until that’s ready, I recommend you give I, the One a read. It’s creepy, dark, and counter-intuitively hopeful.

As Meelik says at one point, “I couldn’t stand not existing.”

Life will always poke through.

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