In the 25th century a mysterious group of humanist philosophers rose from among the ranks of those Underground Archivists. They came to be known by the collective name “Mythmakers.” They composed works of rare beauty and symbolic power from which emerged a new behavioral code, a new system of morality based not on arbitrary prescriptions of religious dogma but on the humanist tenets of respect for life, the unity of humankind, and personal responsibility. [from The Termite Queen]
This book is a science fiction coming-of-age tale that tells
the story of Robbin Haysus Nikalishin, who from an early age dreams of voyaging
to the stars. Set in the 2700s, on an Earth that has been remade after a series
of catastrophic wars. A new government has arisen, as well as a new set of
moral precepts designed to reconcile as well as supersede the core tenets of
the old religions.
Additionally, the passage of time has gradually changed the
spellings and phrasings of the English language—itself now called “Inge.” So,
the United States of America has become Midammerik, India has become Ind, and
so on. The spellings are clever—different enough to convey that the world has
changed, but similar enough that the reader knows what’s what.
Cleverly, the book is framed as an official biography
written to commemorate Nikalishin, but with the twist that the notes at the
beginning suggest the officials who commissioned it are less than pleased with
how the author has chosen to depict the subject.
Nikalishin’s life is driven by his determination and
unrelenting desire to be a spaceship captain. He studies physics from some of
the best professors in the world, and also attends a military academy, all in
order to prepare himself for the job of starship captain. He and his good
friend Kolm MaGilligoody rise swiftly through the ranks, ultimately joining an
experimental program known as SkyPiercer.
Nikalishin’s other interests besides space travel include
birdwatching and, of course, sex. He has many romantic encounters with various
women he meets throughout his remarkable rise to worldwide fame as a daring
space explorer. Some of the relationships last, some don’t, but all of them
influence him in one way or another. The romance sub-plots are well done and
always are both integral to the plot and right for the characters.
Now, make no mistake, while the book has strong characters
and a great plot, it’s not simply an epic space opera. That is, it’s not one of
these affairs where space travel is taken as an unexplained fact-of-life to be
explained by hand-waving. This is a “hard” science fiction book, and there is
plenty of in-depth discussion about the quantum physics involved with making
interstellar jumps. But it never feels heavy-handed or dry; indeed, the
discussions about physics punctuated by Nikalishin arguing with his professors
are quite enjoyable.
That’s the thing that dazzled me most: how alive and organic
the whole world of the book feels. It would have been so easy to make it the
literary equivalent of a video game on rails: Robbin Nikalishin meets character
X who gives him Y so he can advance to the next stage and ultimately be a space
But Taylor didn’t take the easy way. She did the hard,
meticulous work of world-building and fleshing out all the supporting
characters. I’m in awe of how every character, from Nikalishin’s mother to his
best friend to his lovers and even down to the ship’s janitor, are
fully-realized and well-described. This isn’t a book, it’s a whole universe
rendered in prose.
Oh, and I haven’t even touched on how much I love the
depiction of religion. Kolm and his family follow a strain of religion clearly
descended from Irish Catholicism. They don’t even fully understand some of the
meaning of the symbols and terms of the rituals, but they follow them even so,
and it brings them spiritual comfort. I loved the way this was handled—neither
stridently preachy nor cloyingly condescending; it felt real.
Now we’re at the part of the review where I typically
mention typos in indie books. I know from reading Taylor’s blog that she
self-edits her books, and that’s typically verboten for indie authors. Do you
know how many typos I found in this book?
That’s right, two typos in the whole thing. I don’t have a
word count for this book, but I know Amazon estimates the length at 510 pages.
My longest book is 308 pages, and it was about 67,000 words, so approximately
217 words per page. If that’s the same here, that means Taylor wrote about
110,670 words, self-edited, and came out with only two minor errors.
That’s insanely good. In the novel, the characters have to
make precise calculations, correct down to like the millionth decimal place,
before attempting an interstellar jump, or they risk disaster. Taylor obviously
has a knack for care and precision that makes her fit to serve aboard one of
her own starships!
If you can’t tell already, I absolutely loved this book and
I can’t recommend it highly enough. Taylor built a fascinating world, populated
it with rich, believable characters, and told a brilliantly paced story about
them. This is sci-fi at its best.
Now, I want to talk a little bit about something somewhat
spoiler-y. It’s not giving away too much, as it concerns something that happens
less than a quarter of the way into the book, but it has ramifications for the
rest of the story. Feel free to skip this if you want to go in completely
Nikalishin’s parents divorce when he is a young boy after
his father physically abuses him and his mother, Sterling. Sterling raises her
son on her own, and makes every effort to see that he achieves his dream of
becoming a starship captain.
At some point, in his late teens, Robbin learns that
Sterling has been working as an escort for wealthy men in order to pay for her
son to attend the schools and take the classes he needs. Robbin is horrified by
this revelation, and ever afterward, his relationship with his mother becomes
strained. He feels, somehow, that everything he achieves and his relationship
with her are irrevocably tainted. They have a falling out, and later a
semi-reconciliation, but he can never quite achieve a healthy relationship with
her, even when he leaves to risk his life on dangerous space missions.
This made me dislike Robbin. He seemed quite ungrateful
towards his mother, after everything she’d done for him. He even, for lack of a
better term, slut-shames her at one point, which is ludicrous given that he
himself seemingly sleeps with every other woman he meets. (More than one
character calls him out on his hypocrisy, but he doesn’t seem to take it to
In a way, his initial feelings are kind of understandable.
We get it, Robbin; you had to think about your mother sleeping with someone,
and it grossed you out. But after that moment of revulsion, an adult should
realize that parents are just people, and that these are the kinds of
situations that happen in life, and then get past it. After all, as Sterling
repeatedly tells her son, she did it for him.
Even as a world-renowned heroic starship captain, Robbin
Nikalishin really is profoundly childish in many ways. He has extremely limited
ability to understand the feelings of women. He’s stunned to discover one of
his acquaintances is a lesbian. He doesn’t mind it, per se, he just acts like
the concept is completely new to him.
He also has an incredibly bad temper. He is sometimes
justified, but even then, he tends to explode in rage at the slightest
provocation. Admittedly, the primary antagonist, who does not appear until
relatively late in the book, is quite infuriating. But Capt. Nikalishin gets
bent out of shape when someone so much as mispronounces his surname. I was
rooting for him, but there were still times when I wanted to sock him right in
the belly of his beloved military uniform and tell him to grow the hell up.
To be clear, none of this is a complaint about the writing.
Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a credit to Taylor that she was able to craft
such a complete character, that a reader could both cheer on and simultaneously
find extremely irritating. Too many writers make their heroes one-dimensional
cardboard cut-outs, or worse, heroes with one painfully obvious flaw tacked-on
just to make them Not Perfect. Capt. Nikalishin is a flawed hero, and better
still, he’s flawed in the way that real heroic figures often are. Think about
the philosopher Carlyle and his so-called “great men,” who often were
impulsive, emotional and obsessed with crafting their own image as flawless
paragons. Nikalishin is what I suspect a real-life “great man” is like—which is
to say, quite maddening to know personally.
And of course, I should stress that this is only part one of
the series. The book ends with an absolutely epic cliffhanger, and I’m eagerly
looking forward to finding out how things develop from here.
It’s funny: even though I like writing sci-fi adventures,
most of the indie books I’ve reviewed have not been in that genre. I haven’t
consciously avoided them; that’s just how it’s worked out. Audrey Driscoll
recommended this to me, and I’m so grateful that she did. It was fun to read a
book in roughly the same genre as I primarily write—especially one as marvelous
as this one. I’m guessing that if you enjoyed my novel The Directorate, you are
very likely going to love this book. It’s a brilliantly thought-out and
well-executed science-fiction epic.
As one indie sci-fi author to another: Ms. Taylor, my hat’s
off to you. This is a really great novel, and for me, it ranks right up there
with the best by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and the other All-Time Greats of