My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is my review fresh off of finishing today. A more polished review will appear on SF Signal sometime in the future.
NO RETURN displays the kind of prose, worldbuilding and depth of characterization that place Zachary Jernigan securely within the top tier of Fantasy authors. The prose pulls you in like a piece of art, forcing you to slow down and observe. The worldbuilding makes you imagine maps, bar room brawls over differences in customs, shop keepers making lists of what supplies to buy from where, kids praying to the god who lives on the moon, women making sex spells, warriors becoming one with their self-controlled, mutating body suits… all in a way that separates the world in NO RETURN from generic fantasy–this world is alive! (Even as I call it Fantasy, it is just as much Space Opera.) My favorite part is the characterization. In boring books, you don’t care about the characters. In mediocre books, you care enough about the characters to hope they win. In top tier books like NO RETURN, you get to know the characters so well, you might even know them more deeply than you know yourself, and then in return, you know yourself even better.
I am so impressed with Zachary for this book, and to add on top that it is his debut, I’m tempted to wrangle up other jealous, newbie authors like myself and whip him with bars of soap while he’s sleep–I mean, I’m very happy for his success.
Pause to share an image of Zachary at his book signing, and to shout out to his guest blog post for Sarah at Bookworm Blues about “Special Needs in Strange Worlds.”
The reason for my 4 star instead of 5 star, considering my glowing praise above, is mainly an issue of pacing and plot. There were more times than I’d like where a few pages would go by without me having any interest in what I was reading. Sure, the description was informed of intelligent worldbuilding, but I question whether the story needed its inclusion. It took me a while to realize that this was a tendency and how to identify it, but after I did (around 2/3’s mark), I would go back after finishing a section I pick one or two pages (or paragraphs in smaller sections) that I felt weren’t necessary. It could be that my preferential style appreciates getting straight to the chase more than observing the scenery, but that’s my experience. It wasn’t always worldbuilding description, sometimes it was backstory or to a lesser degree introspection. (I say lesser degree because some of the introspection is where this book shines the brightest.)
Possibly related to the above criticism is a disappointment in what plot elements could have taken place that didn’t, or were limited in exposure–though I’d be the last to say this book was limited in exposure (insert scene where woman spreads her legs to split her suit right where it counts). Anyway, back to the plot. Wait, back to the sex. I’m being a little silly here, but that’s sort of what this reading experience felt like. Aside from our monk hero, Vedas, everyone seemed mostly interested in sex, and the narrator made sure we knew about it, graphically. Some of these sex scenes were crucial to the plot and acted as an extension of the character’s desire and method of obtaining desires, and in this I was impressed at the author’s gift in craft. But, I think I read a few too many descriptions of cocks hardening and vaginas dripping. Also, was every sexually aggressive male also bisexual or homosexual?
Okay, sorry to get all real-world issues on you. To lighten things up, here’s one of Zachary’s favorite things to draw:
I’m sure I’m reading my own views into this, but I felt the author’s view on sexual equality and atheism may have been a little too strongly emphasized and defended. Numerous characters grow through the act of rebelling against authority, their father or their religion. In fact, this is part of the title and ending lesson. Were there any examples of positive benefits of authority, fathers or religion/faith?
Does a quality story need to have both sides? Maybe I’m wrong. If anything, I enjoyed Zachary’s ability to evoke this discussion through such a powerful story.
In the epilogue, we read, “experience had shown her that worship blinded men to the truth: Adrash is no redeemer. Adrash will destroy the world” (p.279). The clear political/religious statement I read through this book is that religion is a noose tightened by power hungry tyrants to choke off people’s liberties and if not removed, both the noose and them from power, the world will be destroyed. However, regardless of what I think about that statement, the author is allowed to make that statement, and doing so does not really affect my rating, though a little more balance might have helped it not feeling heavy handed. On the flipside of that argument, I give credit to the author for weaving such a consistent and powerful statement through the lives of intricately experienced characters.
Back to the plot. Warriors go on a trip to a gladiatorial battle where the winner will affect the balance of power between rival factions, while a separate rivalry of magicians fight to destroy a god on the moon. After all I read, that last sentence feels like roughly one-third of what this book was about. I appreciate the way characterization makes up most of the other two-thirds, but I’m unsure if the plot was weakened in the balance. Part of my disappointment in that is that the author is a tremendous action writer. His description of pain and vocabulary to help you picture the fantastic is a real pleasure to read. I wanted more. Here is an excellent example of narrative summary action:
“Men and women who had worn suits for decades traded punches powerful enough to crush elephant skulls, dodged and deflected attacks too fast for the eye to follow, and died suddenly, often before the crowd registered the killing blow.
Victors and dead men were separated by a blink of the eye.”
The good news, I hope, is that the author has set himself up for more battles in this universe, more explanation of the way the magic works where men can become gods and the boundaries and gifts within the realm of the dead. But, most importantly, the characters that I have experienced must not die. They have come to life with more depth than I know most people, and their journeys have only just begun. Please write more. This story is only the beginning of what could be an epic classic.
Stay tuned to Adventures in SciFi Publishing, where I’ll have two hours of audio with Zach and book reviewer, soon to be published author, Nick Sharps on educational paths for fans and writers of speculative fiction, including one hour with Zach discussing how Stonecoast’s MFA program helped him write NO RETURN.