Essa Hansen’s Azura Ghost, second book in The Graven series, marks an enormous step up from her already impressive debut, Nophek Gloss. This new story takes us deeper into the mysterious multiverse of the Graven, an ancient race of vast accomplishments that disappeared ages ago but left numerous traces both in architectural and technological remnants and in genetics.
We continue to follow the central character of the first book, Caiden Winn, now ten years older and still trying to understand the Graven element in his genes. It is an inheritance that gives him special powers, particularly the power to compel obedience through his voice and also his ability to master the space ship, Azura, which itself seems to embody an almost spiritual force that is somehow linked to the powers of the Graven.
As in Nophek Gloss, Hansen’s language is startling and fresh, crashing senses into each other, and wrapped in driving rhythms. Sometimes it reminds me of an epic poem, nothing wasted, glowing images, as the author plunges us into the action. I don’t know a lot of Anglo-Saxon poetry, but Hansen’s language reminds me of those brief punchy lines, each with its stress and the metaphors built into the words with such economy and force. Her writing carries me along, sometimes complex and demanding (especially in the opening chapters where there is a lot to unpack) but with no dramatic letup. A very brief example:
“Caiden clawed his right hand in the drive guides. The ship crashed upward like a water drop through a lattice. Its glass wings splashed into liquid around three-meter-thick tree limbs, reforming on the other side, speed dropping. Flocks of luminous creatures swerved from their path.”
Azura Ghost, Kindle edition, location 265
There is a new-found maturity in the lead character, Caiden. Yes, he’s ten years older and no longer so impulsively rushing into one botched attempt to win the day after another, but he also has become more commanding, skilled and at times magnificent in bearing and drive. Most importantly as a character, he is trying to understand and balance the Graven part of his genetic makeup, which gives him a power to impose his will on people around him, and his purely human nature. After taking down the ruler of the Unity empire in Nophek Gloss with the aid of Threi Cetre, a violent Graven power who now commands the Casthen, a force of engineered beings controlling much of the functioning of the multiverse, Threi and Caiden are locked in perpetual struggle. Though Caiden managed to imprison Threi in a bubble universe, he is still able to command the Casthen forces and wants revenge on Caiden.
On the run as he has been for ten years, Caiden is disturbed that he has to rely more and more on what he feels is the Graven monster within him to keep evading the hunters sent by Threi who relentlessly pursue him. Trying to understand his origins and figure out how to integrate Graven power into his life becomes a dominant driver of this story.
He is not alone in this search. Leta, who disappeared amid general slaughter in the opening of Nophek Gloss, reappears here, resurrected by Abriss Cetre, sister of Threi and the ruler of the Unity verse. Leta’s childhood loyalty and friendship with Caiden becomes another powerful driver of the story as these two fascinating characters initially clash, then have to rediscover each other in a compelling sequence that takes up the first major section of the novel. As the story deepens, Leta comes more and more to the forefront as the crucial character and even spiritual force trying to find a peaceful balance among Abriss, Threi and Caiden.
A central theme of this novel is the struggle of the main characters to understand how their human personalities can be fitted into the roles they are meant to play in realizing some of the lost Graven powers. Leta’s development is exceptional, as we hear her integrate the newly recalled memories of her childhood bond with Caiden, how that could translate into the present and testing just how close they want to be or can be, given their immersion in the godlike forces that surround and pull them in.
Azura turns out to be not just a space ship but one of the central forces of the multiverse, a spiritual power that follows Caiden and can integrate itself with any ship he steps into. And Caiden rejoins his found family, a misfit band of human and xenid characters who had found and rescued him in Nophek Gloss. Their warmth and close bonds contrast starkly with Leta’s created “family” consisting of seven beings of various species who have been engineered by Abriss Cetre to recapture the powers of the Graven. Their love and loyalty is commanded by Abriss rather than springing from relationships among them.
Leta and the six other reconstructed beings are all able to detach from their original bodies and enter the proxies, each with formidable combat abilities, that Abriss has created for them. Leta learns to enter the “lumeniferity”, a transcendent dimension of reality that enables her to cross the multiverse and enter minds and bodies at vast distances.
There are so many spectacular ideas and innovative approaches to a multiversal space opera, all realized in rich, vivid language, that I found this book irresistible. It’s not at all your typical adventure, so please put aside any expectations you may have from other writing in this genre. This novel attempts an interesting balance of the underlying adventure and character conflicts inherent in space opera with the exploration of the transcendent dimensions of physics, spirituality and the vastness of human consciousness that Hansen probes so well. The result is a book I find profoundly interesting. The ideas are always compelling, the language superb and the difficulty is the sort that comes from first exposure to a work that is deeply original. It takes a little time for it all to soak in, but the effort makes this story all the more rewarding. I hope the third installment comes soon.
My thanks to Orbit Books and NetGalley for an advance review copy on which I could base this review.