Last year, when I read Axiom’s End, I had to confront my feelings about the book and try to pry them from the influence of Ellis’ work on my own styles. However, with her second book, The Truth of the Divine, I found this process less daunting and I was able to slip into the book and take it for what it was. Fortunately, the second book within the Noumena series is a strong sequel that expands on the world, remaining enjoyable even in its darker and more bleak atmosphere.
The Truth of the Divine opens shortly after where Axiom’s End left off, with Cora as the main translator between Ampersand and the United States government. The events of the months passed are forever embedded in Cora’s memory as she suffers PTSD from nearly dying. The truth about the aliens is now circulating and the US government is playing damage control, hiding as much as they can from the public. Questions about personhood become the main topic of conversation in political circles and online chat rooms. Meanwhile, another of Ampersand’s kind is on their way to Earth, and in Ampersand’s mind, that spells trouble. Cora, feeling that Ampersand, much like the government, is not telling the whole truth. In their absence, Cora builds a bond with investigative journalist Kaveh Mazandarani, who has ties to her father. As more information is revealed, the pot starts to boil over, with Cora and the only people she can trust in the middle of it all.
Ellis continues to build mood into the story, just as she did in her debut. The random newspaper clippings, the text chains, and the internet chat rooms that pop up through the book cast a dark shadow across the story. Divine is not a happy story, it’s bleak and at times draining, but that feels purposeful. Ellis shows a world on the brink, the president has just stepped down after admitting the existence of intelligent alien life on earth. The economy is in a death spiral, and political opportunists along with rabid militia men are throwing their hat in the ring. The slogan from Cora’s father “Truth is a Human Right” has been twisted to push hidden agendas. In the middle of it all Cora is trying to deal with her PTSD, and the things Ampersand might not be telling her. The only real bright spot in the story is the new perspective Kaveh.
Stepping outside of Cora’s mind was at first a little rough. But as the book progressed, I welcomed the wider perspective as it helped to expand the world, while avoiding having to try and write suicidal tendencies from within a character’s head. It helps that Kaveh is an interesting character, despite his questionable behaviors. The uncomfortability with his thoughts though felt purposeful, making him a flawed human, instead of a pure arbiter of justice and good. He’s a great foil to Cora in terms of readability, his grounded willingness to fight for good countering her justified doom spiraling. But he also serves as an antidote to Cora’s father, who comes off more as an opportunistic bomb thrower in Divine. Kaveh’s search for truth and unveiling of it always has something beyond the mere act of speaking truth, it comes with an agenda and he readily admits.
The amygdalines definitely took a backseat in this book, which upset me a lot less than I predicted. Ampersand spent a majority of the book throwing tantrums and trying to clean up the myriad of messes that seem to follow them around. They ignore Cora and have trouble connecting with her, adding a tension to their relationship and a new facet to their character. Nikola, a new alien with unclear allegiances, befriends Kaveh and offers a deeper understanding of the superorganism that is their species. While not a lot is revealed specifically about their culture, Nikola frames everything in relation to humanity and what could come next as the superorganism inexorably marches toward Earth. He leant a heavy sense of doom to everything, while being incredibly zen in his perceived villainy. It was always a delight to read interactions with him because he was oddly charming in his ability to wax poetic about the meaninglessness of everything.
It’s hard to talk about what I appreciate most about this book without it becoming a list of things. Ellis’ pacing is weird, but it doesn’t feel uneven, allowing for moments of philosophical conversations and intense chaos within pages of each other. Her more philosophical conversations recognize the implications behind greater intelligent life, highlighting their importance on the human scale, while diminishing their grandiosity with the nature of an uncaring void. She writes people with warts in a way that allows you to embrace their goodness while acknowledging their inner worst tendencies. Everything feels ambiguous, and you’re not sure who to trust except for those who need help right in front of you.
There is a lot to process in this second book and it’s hard to scratch every itch it fathered in a single review, but I “enjoyed” The Truth of the Divine in the ways one would expect to enjoy a dark book. Ellis’ clearly pushed her abilities in writing this novel, trying new things that mostly paid off. The exploration of “truth is a human right” juxtaposed against the conversations on the definition of personhood in the face of intelligent life is a great choice. Kaveh was the perfect character to expand the world and see Cora from a distance as she fractures. I can’t wait for the next book, and the things Ellis will put the reader through.
Rating: The Truth of the Divine 9.0/10