On the planet of Jeroun, every ten years, the followers and detractors of the god Adrash meet in a grand martial arts tournament in the city of Danoor. It is an opportunity to present and show the superiority of one’s point of the view in the most visceral way possible–grand combat. The world of Jeroun is not a safe place, however, and even crossing the continent to get to the tournament is a challenge and adventure in and of itself.
And hanging over the world is the Needle, a set of spherical weapons set in place by that very same God. Every night, as Jeroun’s moon rises into view, so does the Needle. The last time Adrash sent two of the smallest spheres crashing down, it was a worldwide catastrophe. If he were to unleash all of them, the world would not survive it. And so a group of mages seek to shed the constraints of the world, and fly into space to entreat with a god that might be intent on destroying them all. And soon.
No Return is the debut novel from Zachary Jernigan.
The world feels like a brash and bold homage to writers like Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe and Tanith Lee. The world that the author invokes is the best thing about it. A palpable and very real God watches over the planet. Magician astronauts! Spirits of the dead, who have very real concerns about the fate of the living. Visceral martial arts combat, fought over questions of theology, with the combatants using magical armored suits they never take off. There is a definite science fantasy feel to what is mostly a fantasy novel, and I liked it. There are corners to the world, and aspects to the story that are only briefly touched upon. Throwaway references to minor gods and goddesses to flesh out the mythology. The mystery of the elders, a race of beings that inhabited all of Jeroun and whose corpses are, now, mostly used as magical material, and even as currency.
The major character triangle and character conflict between the hireling Churls, the would-be champion Vedas and the sentient automation Berun is an interesting and fascinating one. The road trip across the continent the three undergo is a journey that not only allows the author to show off the mythology and world building as outlined above, but character development, growth and conflict between the three of them. Each of the characters has a distinct story, a distinct arc, and a fascinating background. Berun in particular undergoes the most distinct arc and growth, and his story reminded me of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, except with a not entirely benevolent creator.
The alchemical astronaut storyline between Ebn and Pol is another study in conflict, worldbuilding and ultimately a fascinating story of what happens when mortals dare to confront, and even challenge, Gods. The audacity of having a storyline of mages that plot trips into orbit to confront the God of the world is breathtaking, and the author makes it all work.
The writing is infused with passion, detail, vivid and evocative description… and a lot of unresolved sexual tension. One might go so far as to call it sexual frustration more than just tension. In that way, the book feels extremely modern and new in having the characters grapple with it. Is it metaphor or parallel to the main plots? Yes, and yet it is a thing on its own.
Weaknesses I found in the novel? I think the two disparate storylines are a bit too disjointed from each other and touch on each other far far too ephemerally for my taste. I think many readers would appreciate some more interweaving of the alchemical astronauts and the martial arts tournament. As it stands, save for the denouement, they don’t really even have to take place in the same novel, or even the same version of the world. I was also a bit frustrated at the tournament gets a lot less screen time than I was anticipating, or hoping. We only see, in the end, bits and pieces of it, painted in extremely broad strokes. Given the joy and verve of other set pieces in the novel, I was hoping for more of the same when it came to the tournament combats.
One of the other weaknesses, I think is the placement of a lot of the material in the coda, which focuses on the God, Adrash. I think the revelations and introspections make this section feel like the end of Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed. I am not sure that putting this material as a reveal and a capstone is entirely effective. I think it could have been more interspersed throughout the text and been more effective for the reader as interludes.
The novel does not end at a cliffhanger and does have an ending. That said, though, No Return leaves a lot of threads hanging in the air. Should the author desire to revisit this world, there are many questions and lines for him to follow. Despite the book’s flaws for me, I enjoyed No Return, very much. Its an intriguing debut, and I look forward to what Jernigan will come up with, either in this world, or in others of his creation.