This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Banna idir dufiur et gohdeo … hey, I think I know this one. Something about there being a frog in my bidet, isn’t it?
I kid. I really enjoyed the uncompromising, deep-end plunge that Isoldesse pushes on the reader right from page one. It made me feel like one of the characters, confused and lost and overwhelmed. And at least we get a glossary! Yeah, there was a little world-by-world glossary of terms at the start of the book, so we have a little more information than the protagonists, but it is just enough to keep our heads above water. And, like I mentioned, the quasi-incantations of the sci-fi space magic were delightfully fantastical and reminded me of John Carter of Mars.
Yes, this story opens hard, with a lot of study material by way of an intro, and overall the narrative read like a science-fantasy in the John Carter or even Flash Gordon style. High fantasy with planets instead of ye olde realms, and while these may all add up to a problem for some readers, I liked it.
That being said, I did very nearly hurl my Kindle across the room early on – and I only didn’t because it was a pretty expensive little doodad. See, each world being studied for the Aevo Compendium (which I consistently failed to imagine as anything but Megadodo Publications, one of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor, and their renowned guide for hitchhikers) is divided into four regions and a researching agent – well, look:
Spiaire – (spy-ir) A Sendarian who lives a double life on an alien world during an Aevo Compendium trial. There are four total Spiaires assigned to four different regions of whatever world is undergoing observation. A Spiaire’s job is to befriend the subjects without revealing their true identity and prepare the subjects for extraction to Priomh.
Okay, so the “four different regions” of Earth were Florida, California, the Midwest, and “north” – and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t talking about beyond-the-US north. I decided this was a hilarious surreal joke of some sort, and laughed rather than angry-purchasing a paperback just so I could throw it into the Gulf of Finland. Well played! But seriously, the rest of the planet exists, y’all.
Anyway, from this rocky but endearing start, I found myself rapidly overtaken by events and was left with a persistent feeling that I was reading a young adult drama like Beverly Hills 90210 but with some characters randomly swapped out for alien researchers and others swapped out maybe for some opposing alien group that’s hunting the researchers, and one of the humans is bonded with an alien ghost in a crystal and also the aliens seemed to have alien parents / handlers? I was quickly lost, but like Darci and Gemma and Meegan and Kenna (I’m afraid their names and descriptions made them all a teensy bit interchangeable to me) I was dragged along from one scene to the next and ultimately it was rather enjoyable even though it gave me a mild arrhythmia.
Through it all, I was able to focus on a couple of things. First, the Beast was an utterly disgusting character and the only implausible thing about him was that he was somehow employed by the Aevo Compendium people. There’s more to his story but frankly the fact that he wasn’t shot in the face and buried out back somewhere to enrich Priomh’s biosphere before the book even began was a real danger to my suspension of disbelief. Also, not to spoil things, but towards the very end of the book we find out that he sports a man-bun (it is mentioned briefly around the halfway point but it’s easy to miss) and I’m going to be honest, the reader deserves to know this a lot sooner. Like, a lot sooner. I’m just saying.
Other highlights included drunk Ally calling Xander a poopy-head, the Beast and his sudden but inevitable betrayal, and the moment I found out basically an entire alien species (or at least the females thereof) were redheads. That’s almost certainly someone’s idea of fun, but it’s not great when you’re trying to tell characters apart and hair colour seems to be the main characteristic mentioned each time.
Anyway, it was great. Let’s see what the meters have to say about it all.
A chaste and thoroughly decent outing, Isoldesse had a few traces of leery nastiness and one genteel curtain-drop to cover a hypothetical hour-long human-on-alien boinkfest. I’ll give it an “isn’t that technically bestiality?” out of a possible “oh boy, that’s definitely bestiality, get that sheep out of here and why do you have a man-bun you’re just the worst” on the ol’ sex-o-meter.
One-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one. There wasn’t much gore or violence, although the story didn’t want for action. Nicely balanced.
Like I said, this story had some excellent surreality and a colourful Flash Gordon aesthetic and John Carter system of high-tech space magic. The absolute relentless speed at which life comes at Julianna and Prue and Rian and Sabine (and Nick and Matthew and Liam and Ben…) adds a whole new level of enjoyment to this highly imaginative roller-coaster of a story.
My Final Verdict
Well now look, I just said “highly imaginative roller-coaster of a story,” so I can hardly do better than that here, can I? Isoldesse is Grymes’s debut novel and may she write many more! It was never boring, it showed a butt-ton of creative prowess and introduced us to a very complex series of worlds. Three stars! Thanks for a fun read.