A lot of the SciFiMonth team have featured Nophek Gloss, and as soon as I got into the book I could see why. This first novel in the Graven Trilogy startles with vivid language born of an imagination that is at once hypersensitive to details of change and alive with synesthetic richness. Essa Hansen tells an exciting story that brilliantly integrates divergence and diversity of many types into the narrative structure.
She has created multiple species dramatized in unforgettable characters, bubble universes with different physics, dazzling materials that underlie the construction of worlds and ingenious technologies for both good and ill.
The meaning of divergence and diversity get profound treatment in characters who can transform their appearance to match the memories of those they come in contact with. Others can reshape their bodies with new parts that can be restyled into humanoids of different appearance or gender. People can have their ages accelerated to prepare them for new tasks. Spaceships can alter their structure and visibility depending on the universe they enter.
And all this is rendered in rich language that can immediately bring to life the most bizarre phenomena. Here’s one small sample:
“She pushed his forehead against the crystal. Colors burst through his eyes. Sugar sweated across his tongue. The ship’s singing vibration engulfed his skull, stilled his shivers, filled the ravine his nightmare had carved. Caiden went slack as pulsations rolled over him. Jagged bits of despair spilled free, cutting him on the way out. Warmth and gratitude infested him, and the ship’s weave of tonal textures felt indescribably right, like a language he hadn’t realized was his mother tongue.”Nophek Glss, Kindle edition, location 1885
We first meet this fellow Caiden as a fourteen year-old mechanic living happily on a planet devoted to a single purpose and controlled by masters who appear as needed to direct a compliant population. Caiden loves his mom and dad, is devoted to his ten year-old friend Leta and enjoys his role as a superb mechanic. Yet this whole world comes crashing down in horrible violence that scars him for the rest of his life and sets him on a course of vengeance to find the root of the great evil that has been done to his people.
That’s a conventional enough starting point, but Hansen has an original take on every aspect of what follows. A wounded Caiden is taken in by a colorful crew of misfits of different species, capabilities and complex histories that somehow make up a family. It’s a rare writer who can successfully create a sense of family among a spaceship crew – though so many have tried – rather than just an assemblage of quirky characters. Hansen does this beautifully – the characters are attractively memorable yet complex in their own ways and have distinctive reasons for bonding with Caiden and each other.
In thinking about the experience of reading Nophek Gloss, I’ve been emulating Luke Burrage’s method of identifying the elements that keep me from giving it the highest rating. The main problem I had was with the central character’s arc.
Headstrong heroes are often the norm – who wants to follow someone who always does the sensible thing? – but when Caiden goes through the same pattern at least half a dozen times, things get a bit predictable. Each time Caiden thinks he’s learned his lesson, he goes off too quickly to seek vengeance, which he confuses with justice, fails over and over and gets battered, bruised, broken and tortured in the most outrageous ways. And credibility is stretched when some of his repeated attempts to bring down the evil character who is the object of his hatred reveal gaping security lapses in the otherwise all-knowing nature of that villain.
Essa Hansen deserves a lot of credit for dealing extensively with trauma and how a variety of characters deal with extreme life-changing events. Caiden is the prime example. He goes through a treatment for trauma multiple times that depends entirely on forcing him to confront his worst nightmares, failures and losses until he is inured to them and can take them in stride without them forcing into some ill considered action. Trouble is something is left out each time, so he can be and is defeated by that other thing that becomes his new worst fear.
Trauma can raise fear and psychological defenses to unbearable levels, though that more commonly results in a damaged psyche prone to self-destructive behavior than outward determination to seek justice. And the treatment usually has to involve more than reliving memories of horrible events and repeated exposure to them in an imaginative space.
But Caiden’s response to trauma has a lot of depth too, and is made more complex when he discovers the effects of genetic engineering on his behavior and impact on others. So Hansen is quite ambitious in adding complexity to her characters while moving them through non-stop adventures. She may not always get it exactly right, but she scores very highly indeed.
Aside from a few reservations, I think Hansen has pulled off an amazing feat. By the end of this first novel, she produces an exciting conclusion with a long denouement which sees off all the people we’ve gotten to know. And then she adds a coda which raises the narrative to a transcendent level that becomes the setup for the second book of the trilogy.
Nophek Gloss is a marvelous start to an exciting series that goes far beyond conventional adventure and hero tales. The values of diversity and divergence from norms are so built in that it isn’t necessary to call attention to them. Yet they resonate deeply with a reader who has had to deal with his own disabilities in recent years. Privilege and power are equally important themes that I’m sure will continue to take center stage as the rest of the trilogy unfolds. This book – and the Graven series – is not to be missed.