The Doors of Eden – A Window Into What Could Have Been

the-doors-of-eden-hb-coverI am very appreciative of Adrian Tchaikovsky continually putting out solid standalone science fiction novels. His latest book, The Doors of Eden, is the next in a long chain of satisfying and meaty stories that are nicely contained in a single novel. Tchaikovsky’s latest novel has cemented him in my mind as a reliable author who always has something interesting to say and explore with his novels. As you might have guessed, I enjoyed The Doors of Eden, and I suspect that you will as well.

The Doors of Eden is about parallel Earths. In this story, there exists a multitude of timelines dating back to the dawn of life on Earth, each with its own branching path to evolution. The story explores the question “what if the dominant species of different eras of Earth’s history kept evolving and became the dominant lifeform?” As usual, Tchaikovsky sets these ideas up brilliantly and the exploration of what a society of Trilobites looks like is fascinating. There is this cool “strangeness” paradigm that he uses in building the societies which really tapped directly into my imagination. The closer to the dawn of Earth a species is from, the longer they have been around to advance their technology – and the less they resemble humans. Thus, the older species are god-like spacefarers that humans struggle to communicate with, while the younger species are something like “rats who have cured cancer.” It was a cool way to lay out all of Earth’s history and did a better job of teaching me the differences in the prehistoric eras than any high school course did.

The tension in our story comes from reality collapsing (no biggie, obviously). A group of scientists across the parallel Earths realize that realities are starting to bleed into one another and citizens from different Earths are leaking into non-native parallel worlds and scaring the locals. They also realize that these leaks are heralding the end of all existence entirely, and decide to band together to see if they can maybe stop it.

The narrative in The Doors of Eden is split into two different story types that alternate between chapters. The first storyline is the present, where a ragtag group of characters is trying to keep reality from ending. The second storyline is academic vignettes that dive in, catalog, and explore all the different versions of Earth and how they came to be. The academic vignettes are incredible and sucked me into the book as violently as explosive decompression. The present storyline was also very enjoyable but had a couple of issues that kept me from loving it with the ferocity of the second narrative.

The vignettes have no specific characters and are told from a distant academic point of view. The present story has a myriad of characters that I had mixed feelings about. The first (and greatest) character is Kay Amal Khan – a male to female transgender math god who is leading the ‘keep reality from ending’ effort on the human side. She is funny, fierce, brilliant, and has both a scientific and personal arc that I was heavily invested in. Tchaikovsky managed to give a lot of time exploring the discriminatory garbage that trans people have to put up with while also losing none of his signature sci-fi concepts. She is wonderful and I would die for her.

Up next we actually have an antagonist, sorta. The real antagonist of the story is the heat death of the universe, but Lucas is the right-hand man of another man who isn’t improving things. Lucas is a complicated character who falls into being a bad guy and doesn’t know how to stop. He doesn’t necessarily have a redemption arc, but his story does an amazing job exploring how the tiny choices we make build momentum into who we become, and in some ways how our circumstances–not our inherent nature– determines whether we are good or bad. His story is great; you will have to read the book to understand it better than I can reasonably explain here.

Then we move to the lesbian teenagers in love, Lee and Mal. They are fine. Their story isn’t particularly interesting, and they don’t feel like they mesh well with the urgent narrative – but their budding relationship is still enjoyable and they have relatable personalities. They felt like they were around to catalyze a few “aha” moments for other characters and I wish they had a little more agency in the actual story.

Then we have the MI5 agents, Alison and Julian. Alison is also fine. The two of them mostly seem to exist in the story to foil the rest of the characters and argue that strange events the reader knows are happening actually aren’t happening. However, while Alison eventually becomes more integral to the story and has some agency, Julian’s entire deal is to continuously whine about how he doesn’t really love his wife and secretly wants to bone his coworker (Alison). He refers to it as the “unspoken connection” they have, then talks about it in his head constantly. Not a huge fan of him.

In addition to the characters, the science also has its ups and downs. The parts that cover the evolution of other Earths are detailed, imaginative, and exciting. However, the parts of the book that actually talk about trying to fix reality usually involve some people going off-screen and “doing some math,” then coming back and reporting whether it worked or not. On the one hand, it isn’t a huge detail as the themes and ideas of the book are more closely tied to how the characters process the multiple Earths – not the actual fixing of reality. On the other hand, given how delightfully detailed the other Earth vignettes were, I found it disappointing that Tchaikovsky just handled the crisis-solving off-screen.

Overall, The Doors of Eden is a great book with both heart and science. Tchaikovsky has a real talent and imagination for alternate realities and seems to have a vault of ideas to explore that never runs out. I absolutely loved the glimpses in Earths that could have been, but the characters that were the focus of so much of the story were a bit mixed. Still, I definitely recommend this standalone sci-fi novel as one of the most enjoyable things I have read this year.

Rating: The Doors of Eden – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Dark Tide – Witching Hour

Alicia Jasinska’s The Dark Tide was my third and final Dark Horse debut pick for the first half of 2020. The novel slotted neatly into my dark horse reading slate, adding an atmospheric fairy-tale inspired story to pair with my epic fantasy (The Kingdom of Liars) and sci-fi (Goddess in the Machine) selections. The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a poetic reading experience. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters and their stories. 

The island of Caldella holds an annual festival on St. Walpurga’s Eve. During the festival, the witches from the nearby Water Palace join in the revelry, singing and dancing alongside the non-magical islanders. Witches trade spells for songs, dances, and performances, giving the islanders a chance to earn magic that’s otherwise extremely expensive. But the festival’s sinister underlying purpose is to choose a sacrifice. Each year, the Witch Queen kisses one boy at the festival, marking him for sacrifice. The boy is then whisked away to the Water Palace and kept safe until the full moon, when he’ll be given to the dark tide to prevent Caldella from sinking into the black depths of the sea. Only one boy–Thomas Lin–has ever escaped the sacrifice. Two years earlier, he convinced the former Witch Queen to sacrifice herself in his place. In response to his triumph, the tide has reached further and further up the island, and many believe the Witch Queen’s sacrifice didn’t take. 

This year, protagonist Lina fears that her brother Finley will be taken. So she locks him in his room to prevent him from attending the festival. He escapes out the window and attends anyway, so Lina rushes to the event to bring him home. On the way, Thomas Lin offers to help her find Finley. But when they arrive, the festival rages and Thomas Lin–once again–is chosen as the annual sacrifice. Lina sails to the Water Palace to rescue him, eventually offering herself as a replacement sacrifice. Eva, the Witch Queen, accepts her offer, but neither expects to fall for the other. Eventually, Eva and Lina have to make a difficult choice.

The Dark Tide’s concept is promising and intriguing. The islanders of Caldella live a half-magical life away from the mainland (where we’re told they boil witches to use their parts for magic). Witches offer magic to the islanders, but every spell takes a part of them with it–a strand of hair, a drop of blood. And when a witch uses all of his or her magic, they simply fade into nothing. The islanders use this relationship mostly out of fear that the dark tide will rise and sink Caldella permanently. The magic system (everything has a cost) and dark underbelly (necessary sacrifice) of the book lend it a cool premise that had me invested early. 

Jasinska’s writing only boosted my excitement. She writes lyrical prose that has a shadowy, darkly poetic slant to it. Her writing is some of the most unique prose I’ve read in a while, creating a thick atmosphere and crafting a stand-out identity for the book. 

Where The Dark Tide fell short for me, though, is the character work and the plot itself. Lina and Eva, our two POV characters, have limited space to breathe and never truly come into their own as semi-protagonists. The supporting cast is the same. Each character has a few defining traits that make them distinct from others, but I didn’t feel for them or empathize. Thomas Lin is a mysterious, handsome boy; Finley is a headstrong, temperamental, protective (and handsome) brother. Eva is a troubled queen mourning a loss. Marcin–another witch–is cutthroat and clearly desires to rule the witches of Caldella over Eva. I am a handsome book reviewer. All of this is to say that each character has defining traits, but The Dark Tide tells these details instead of showing them. It’s one aspect of the story that felt overshadowed by the remarkably descriptive prose. 

The Dark Tide’s narrative never hooked me enough to genuinely wonder what might happen next. The novel’s climax–the choice Lina and Eva must make to save themselves or Caldella–breezes by in a few pages without any emotional payoff. What should’ve been a hard-hitting character- and plot-defining moment felt like the story fizzling out. Instead, I found myself reading for the joy of Jasinska’s writing. The story of sacrifice and love and shirking tradition in The Dark Tide may strike the fancy of some readers, but I found it the weakest point of the story. The narrative is riddled with plot holes, but I’m not even sure that it matters. The fairy tale atmosphere makes it easy to ignore any consistency issues or glaring questions, allowing the reader to enjoy the book as a unified whole. It’s like hearing a tale passed down through oral tradition. Details may clash, but the message remains. 

The Dark Tide also features LGBTQ+ romance as it should be featured: it’s one of many aspects of life on Caldella. It’s great to see strong representation for marginalized communities in fantasy.

From an objective standpoint, I think many readers will enjoy The Dark Tide. The story has a flavorful hook, and the prose proves that Jasinska has writing chops. I personally didn’t connect with the story or the characters, but I still found plenty to enjoy in the beautiful writing and strong themes contained within. 

Rating: The Dark Tide: 6.0/10

-Cole

Harrow The Ninth – Sure, Ok, Yeah

9781250313225God, it’s like assembling a fusion reactor without a manual. I am honestly surprised at my perceived commercial success of Tamsyn Muir’s The Locked Tomb series. Not that it is bad in any way – in fact, we gave book one a stellar review and listed the series as one of our top Science Fantasy books of all time. It’s just that these books are so confusing that you will literally never understand what is happening, which is usually a huge turn off for most readers. I am pleasantly surprised that the general public has collectively decided these books are worth the time and effort.

So, Harrow The Ninth, the second book in the series, is coming out soon. You might be sitting on your couch right now, browsing this review on your phone, and thinking “oh a Harrow review, maybe he will say the books get less confusing.” Well reader, no, unfortunately, I cannot say that because I don’t understand half the plot, and the other half I do understand is basically all spoilers. And yet, I absolutely do recommend this stellar second installment of the series. This puts me in an awkward position because I usually use the plot and story as the foundation of why I like a book like Harrow the Ninth. Thus, much like The Locked Tomb’s storytelling, this review is going to be a little unorthodox.

So what can I tell you? Well, Harrow the Ninth picks up our story shortly after the end of book one from the perspective of the other half of the delectorable duo of Gideon and Harrow. If you are completely new to this series, in Gideon the Ninth our duo represents a tag team of warrior/bodyguard (Gideon) and space necromancer (Harrow) competing in a strange unorthodox game of sorts and told from the POV of Gideon.

In the second book, Harrow the Ninth, Harrow is the frontliner and it leads me to my next profoundly gushy thought about this series. Tamsyn Muir somehow manages to completely change her narrative style and structure when flipping from the POV of Gideon to Harrow, and yet both styles have extremely excellent prose. This prose and style shift is immensely helpful in setting up a different tense and thick atmosphere in Harrow the Ninth and gives the books distinct flavors. It reminded me of my The Black Company, by Glen Cook, and if you have read my large thought piece on the series, you will know that is a good thing.

Harrow the Ninth is split into two narratives because Harrow essentially lobotomizes herself at the start of book for… reasons. This metaphorical icepick to the brain is a key factor in how Muir completely alters her prose to evoke Harrow’s POV. Half the story is a strange heavily changed retelling of book one, and the other half is Harrow trying to piece her mind back together post lobotomy. This means that Harrow is doing one of two things to the reader at all times: 1) actively lying about how events happened or 2) being so confused about what is going on that she might as well be lying. Harrow might win the award for the single most unreliable narrator in the world, and it’s amazing. See, Harrow the Ninth is less about telling a coherent narrative and much more about watching a character claw her way back to sanity – and at this, it succeeds magnificently.

Without a clear plot to coherently grasp, I feel like there was a lot of pressure on the characters and world to grab the reader hard. Luckily, both of these aspects of Harrow are phenomenal. The magic in The Locked Tomb continues to be the only series that uses necromancy as its main magic in a cool and innovative way. The blend of fantasy and science fiction is delightful and otherworldly. While I may still be very confused as to what is happening in the plot, book two does a lot to better at fleshing out the magic and technology of the world and puts a ton of cool new tools in the reader’s hands. The characters are also unsurprisingly phenomenal. Harrow is an all-star, and I actually think I like her more than Gideon. Gideon was complicated, amusing, and fun as a protagonist – but Harrow has uncharted depths that I just want to dive into. The supporting cast also continues to be a small set of well fleshed out foils. This book has a lot going for it.

However, I did have one small complaint about Harrow the Ninth that knocked it from getting a perfect score from me. As I mentioned before, a large portion of the narrative is devoted to an altered retelling of book one that has had a ton of facts changed due to Harrow’s brain damage. In the end, I very much understand why Muir added these sections to the story, but I feel that there was too much page space devoted to them. They add very specific elements to the atmosphere and character growth, but I don’t think they needed roughly 30-40% of the page space to do it, and some of the sections can drag. I definitely got the feeling of “why am I rereading this again” a few times.

Harrow the Ninth is a stunning, impressive sequel that beat all my expectations. The shift in voice and tone between books one and two shows that Muir is a very powerful and mechanically gifted writer, while the excellent worldbuilding and character writing shows she has boundless creativity. Unless the third part of this trilogy profoundly screws the pooch, I believe The Locked Tomb will be one of the best series in recent memory. If you aren’t reading these books, you are doing yourself a disservice.

Rating: Harrow the Ninth – 9.5/10
-Andrew