Cassandra Khaw is a name that has lurked in the back of my mind for a long while now, even though I have never read her other works. A review of one of her previous works exists on the site, and though I didn’t get to those stories (yet), those words ring true about her debut novel, The All-Consuming World.
The story follows a now disbanded crew of outlaws, who were once notorious throughout the galaxy, as they get back together to solve the mystery of why their last heist went so poorly. Maya, the crew’s feral gunwoman, and Rita, the mastermind of the group, find out that a long dead comrade may still be alive, and they set out to gather the rest of the crew for one last mission. They will return once again to the forbidden planet of Dimmuborgir and attempt to find the secret that the AIs of the universe keep hidden there. In the background, the sapient AI that call themselves ageships are running their own schemes, making sure the group fails, and that humanity will never have a chance at controlling the universe again. Can Maya and Rita convince the rest of the crew that their comrade is still alive, and keep tensions between them all mitigated enough to complete one final mission?
Having never read Khaw’s previous works, I can say one thing for certain, she has capital S – Style. While it may not work for some folks, I was completely enamored with her mastery of the English language. While this book is short, it is dense with million dollar words that fit oh so perfectly into every nook and cranny grammar allows. It’s also the most times I’ve seen the word “fuck” and probably some of most creative ways I’ve seen it used. While there are a lot of people who might be put off by Khaw’s exponential use of the word, I found it fascinating because it never became a background word and was tied to a very specific character. On top of that, different points of view had different ways of narrating their experiences, switching between a computer that follows branching ideas and a rabid guard-dog of a woman constantly pulling at her chains with ease. It takes a little getting used to, but Khaw establishes a flow early on and I was swept up in her currents without much of a fight.
If there is one thing heists always need, it’s a colorful cast of characters, and does The All-Consuming World blast through that criteria with reckless abandon. Maya, the character we see most of the story through, is unhinged, ready to kill at a moments notice. Her introductory chapter is one for the books, with an absolute blast of an ending that really sets the tone for the rest of the story. Rita is elusive and manipulative as the group’s founder and leader. She always feels there, without necessarily being present, trying to find the weak points in her crew’s psyche to needle them into their next mission. Verdigris is a showy peacock (fitting that they’re a pop star) hiding from their past in an incredibly ostentatious style. There are several other characters that I could just list here, but I feel it would diminish their stamp on the book to just describe them. Each one is fun and interesting in their own weird way, and somehow feels rounded given how short of a time the reader spends with them.
Khaw introduces tension between the characters in natural ways, allowing pots to stir and stews to simmer until the last possible moment when the last thing the crew needs is personal drama to get in their way. It doesn’t feel contrived, as she strikes the right balance of giving them opportunities to relieve pressure, before they double down and just tamp down their emotions one more time. Some of the characters try to ease the pain and burdens of others, only to be rebuked and create distance. Khaw lets this tension play out in the forming of the plan, and the reforming of the group, delivering fast paced plot interlaced with character development that makes the book always feel as if it’s approaching light speed.
The story itself is tight and focused, feeling like the montage scenes of every heist movie boiled down to their essences. It’s fun, it’s furious, it’s also gruesome. Like the writing, it’s packed to the brim with action, dialogue, and tension. Like a perfectly designed roller coaster, the slight moments of calm are just prelude to the next down slope. What I enjoyed most was how much Khaw made the emotional and material arcs fit together. It wasn’t so much that they lined up as much as they were long time dance partners that knew how each other moved.
My only complaint with the novel is that I wish there was more, but really it felt just right. The worldbuilding is just enough to make the mystery of Dimmuborgir worth solving. The characters and their internal dynamics are pitch perfect. The action is well written, fleshed out with colorful language. There are tender moments and there are gruesome ones. It’s the complete package in a small, thoroughly enjoyable book. It’s hard to quantify this sort of thing, but this might be one of the best books I have read this year so far.
Rating: The All-Consuming World 10/10
An ARC of this book was provided to us in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.