Caiden’s planet is destroyed. His family gone. And, his only hope for survival is a crew of misfit aliens and a mysterious ship that seems to have a soul and a universe of its own. Together they will show him that the universe is much bigger, much more advanced, and much more mysterious than Caiden had ever imagined. But the universe hides dangers as well, and soon Caiden has his own plans. He vows to do anything it takes to get revenge on the slavers who murdered his people and took away his home. To destroy their regime, he must infiltrate and dismantle them from the inside, or die trying.
Nophek Gloss is Essa Hansen’s debut and the first in the author’s The Graven series. I have seen some categorize this book as Space Opera, but I do not see the sweeping elements one normally finds in a book characterized as such. In my opinion, this is just good Science Fiction. The caveat to this statement is twofold: 1) I am not very good at labeling sub-genres, and 2) Sometimes with SciFi it is the second book in the series that really develops the epic scope that can broaden the horizons to push the series into Space Opera territory. So, I will reserve final judgement for now, but know that this is the context into which my review is framed.
His left fist clutched the nophek gloss: the most valuable thing anywhere. With his right hand, he massaged the nape of his neck where the branding scar raised his skin, marking him as the least valuable thing anywhere.
If I had to summarize the main conflict in this novel, the quote above is a great start. The storyline is all about Caiden: where he is from, what he has been through, and what his experiences mean to the universe at large. This is so important, because the reader endures the world through Caiden’s eyes, and let me tell you, Caiden goes through some capital-s Shit. The story begins with everyone he knows getting ripped to shreds by animals cultivated by a company for the incredibly valuable gem-like substance that they produce inside their bodies. Capitalism at its worst. From there, Caiden gets exposed to the power dynamics of the outside world, continuing his tour of tragic experiences. He has some help along the way from his alien friends and some very specific processes that are available to him (intentionally vague, as I do not want to spoil anything), but it is not an easy go. Of course, Caiden’s situation evolves through the story as he learns how to navigate the world around him. Caiden eventually harnesses the value of his knowledge to try enact a series of events that will make the world a better place. The suspense created by Caiden’s situation alone is enough to carry a narrative.
“…I am heartened that at least we recovered you in the fallout, child. You are worth a whole society.”
I found the story to be relatively straight forward, which I did not necessarily mind. I really liked a lot of the unique elements to the story. I mentioned before Caiden uses some “specific processes”, and I am not going to go into detail. But these are story elements I have never seen before, and I thought they were very well thought out. These components also create interesting moral dilemmas, and if there is anything I like in a story it is gray area. I say that because morally ambiguous aspects not only make me think what would I do, but I also think they spark debate. Stories that generate discourse tend to be my favorite, and Nophek Gloss is certainly one of them. Not just for the processes I am being so vague about, but this book questions everything.
I mentioned Caiden’s would-be alien friends, and this is definitely a found family situation (I LOVE FOUND FAMILY!). Having lost his family at the start of the book, Caiden is alone and scared. He latches on with a diverse crew who use their experience to help him find his way. They were awesome supporting characters. My only wish is that they were in story more. There is a period of time where they get separated from Caiden, and I think the author could have used that as an opportunity to work in a dual narrative. I find myself really wanting to know what they were doing during that time.
Hansen’s world-building is phenomenal, as well, creating a corner of the Universe (careful using that word loosely around this book, though) that is interesting and richly developed. I love novels where the world-building is thorough, and the way the information was given to the reader, not in big infodumps but dropped in there and there throughout the narrative, was perfect. The technology and spaceships were also really great. It felt like the author thought of everything, and I was happy to get lost in it.
There were a couple of things that did not work as well for me. Neither are a big deal, but I want to mention them because they did remove me from the story at times. One of them is the idea of these singularly-created “Universes”. I do not hate the idea, but found myself wondering about the execution of them. Wrapping my head around the physics of it became a little too messy. The other is that oftentimes chapters would start in the middle of the action, and then context clues were dropped so that the reader could infer what happened and how we got where we were. This is a tried-and-true writing practice that I enjoy when employed every once in a while, but with Nophek Gloss I thought it was used more often than needed.
Overall, I found Nophek Gloss to be a unique and cerebral science fiction read. It was incredibly well thought-out, and I appreciate that. The ending was so good, too, that it really left me on the edge for the next book in the series (Azura Ghost, expected publication later in 2021). I am looking forward to it, and if you are a sci-fi fan I recommend getting in on this series now. It is going to be one exciting ride.