Essa Hansen’s debut novel, Nophek Gloss, might be best described as classic far future, hard science fiction, combining spaceships, alien life forms, weird technology, and complex galactic politics. Hansen (as Nia Hansen) is an experienced sound designer who has worked on dozens of influential science-fiction and fantasy films and TV shows, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Ant-Man  to Avengers: End Game ) to Star Wars (The Clone Wars [2008-20]) and other science-fiction blockbusters (for example, Lucy ). This familiarity with the genre influences the themes in her novel, including the team dynamics of disparate personality types, animal rights, slavery/domination, and identity politics. However, the constant progression of ideas and themes is a little like throwing all the ingredients from the cupboard into a pan; while there are some interesting and even enjoyable flavours, the overall effect is both overwhelming and unsatisfying.
We’re introduced to Caiden, who is a boy mechanic living on an unnamed world, the inhabitants of which are there to manage the bovine stocks. These beasts are required by the Overseers to feed the ravenous nophek. But what of the titular gloss, and why does this dangerous species need providing for? This MacGuffin—a spherical, translucent gem-like material which fits comfortably in the palm of a hand—is some kind of biological byproduct present in mature nophek that contains energy which is essential to the Overseers, making it the most important substance in the universe, perhaps akin to the spice of the Dune universe.
Unfortunately for Caiden, his family, and his best friend Leta, the bovine herds have all died. A new disease has wiped them out and left the planet uninhabitable. As the novel begins, with the land now useless for farming, the human population—all branded—is about to be moved to a new home. When they arrive, however, they become a replacement for the bovine that feed the nophek. The ripping apart of the humans by the creatures is graphically described. Caiden only survives by covering himself in the blood of a dead nophek and hiding in a small cave, witness to his family and Leta being torn to shreds and eaten, as two nophek fight each other over the human remains.
His entire life shattered, Caiden manages to escape because the predators lose interest and can no longer sense him. He stumbles across an abandoned spaceship and, nearby, another spaceship which has crashed, although its crew of five has survived. Together with Caiden, they get the abandoned ship flying and escape from the nophek planet. The newcomers are a mixed bag of aliens who only just seem to get along. However, they all accept Caiden, almost without question, as the owner of the spaceship, which is named the Azura. Laythan, their captain, informs Caiden that he speaks slaver. Caiden, at this point, has no knowledge of any worlds outside of those he has experienced. He doesn’t know that he was a slave. He doesn’t even understand the nature of space travel.
Hansen, at this early point, appears to be using a far-future “child chosen one” trope: our protagonist has somehow managed to survive without any apparent skills or hero qualities. Indeed, Laythan emphasises Caiden’s youth, constantly referring to him in a derogatory fashion, using terms such as “brave kid” and “boy.” Caiden calls himself Winn (in an apparent nod to John Boyega’s Finn in the Star Wars universe) and learns much about his place in the galaxy in the early pages of the book.
One of the main themes of this novel is management of populations by those in power. Hansen’s Overseers like to keep their populations dumb and compliant. They use propaganda and lies (fake news) to manage their own reality; their own version of Adam Curtis’ hypernormalisation theory. The characters in Nophek Gloss are living in a multiverse, and travel between the different universes is commonplace, via a “rind.” This rind is a thin skin between the universes that both acts to keep each universe separate and allows passage between them, akin to a pin passing through the outer-skin of an orange. Each universe has its own characteristics, and not all are suitable for the myriad species that exist in the multiverse: the universe Caiden lives in, for example, has been designated as a no-fly zone with unstable physics.
Caiden learns that an ancient race, known as the Graven, created the technologies in use. Not much else is known about them, although they have descendants still alive. The Overseers, meanwhile, are part of a corporate entity known as Casthen, that essentially runs the multiverse for profit. Indeed, Caiden's universe has been quarantined simply so that no one will disturb the nophek harvest; it is a deliberate move by the Cashten to conceal the truth about the nophek. Now that Caiden understands the world, he decides upon revenge: no less than destruction of the Casthen. Laythan and the crew (En, Panca, Taitn, and Ksifie) are in need of a new ship, so they head off into adventure, intending to find Caiden a new home along the way.
Another key theme is identity, and Hansen highlights this by creating a number of different alien species. For example, the Vishkant appear as observers want to see them: male, female, or other. The Tal, meanwhile, have morphic flesh and can change between male and female at will. Hansen also normalises the use of non-gendered pronouns. The evolutionary advantages of these species’ traits are not explored; they are simply present. Nevertheless, Caiden encounters many of these new species when he is brought to the Den to register with the Cartographers, an organisation that maps the multiverse. It is now that Caiden is able to come to terms with his new life and expose the Casthen as the bad guys. He learns of Cydanza, the Vishkant who leads the Casthen. She’s a fairly standard villain who just wants to exploit the universe for her own sake. Just as the various alien races are underdeveloped, Cydanza seems to have no deeper motives, and I think this persistent issue is one of the factors that stops Nophek Gloss from being a better novel. I certainly found no reason to engage with Cydanza’s motivations. Caiden also meets Threi, a Casthen enforcer who becomes central to Caiden’s plan of revenge—and conveniently discovers that he can accelerate his life, jumping from being a fourteen-year-old to being a twenty-year-old, choosing abilities and knowledge as he goes. While handy for the plot, this does present a few challenges along the way.
Of course, Caiden’s journey doesn’t run smoothly. Threi becomes less of an enemy but no more of a friend. Like Laythan, he also calls Caiden derogatory names, such as “pup.” The Azura can create its own universe (useful during the novel’s climax), is partly organic, and can heal its crew. This appears to be a new technology as demonstrated once the ship is taken apart late in the story. Panca is a saisn clone, designed as a replacement body for an official, and is adversely affected by the Azura’s created universe. Yet Laythan’s crew still follow Caiden on his journey, and Caiden is in turn drawn to Threi.
Something is going on. Initially, it seems Hansen’s use of the chosen-one trope is much too on the nose. It is only late in the story that something innocuous but very neat comes into play. Caiden has freckles. Other main characters, all leaders, have freckles too: freckles are a Graven characteristic. Caiden, it transpires, was grown to be a Casthen soldier but was somehow misplaced on the bovine world. He isn’t actually a chosen one, but an “ordinary” soldier (at least as ordinary as any other Casthen) who was misplaced and then does extraordinary things. Descendants of the Graven have the ability to bend others to their will by charm alone or through their sheer likeability. This is why Laythan’s crew are so supportive of Caiden and why his relationship with Threi becomes so complex. The main problem with this is that Caiden is not a particularly likeable character, although this is understandable: he was built to be a bad guy, he was abandoned and then witnessed the horrendous atrocity that resulted in the massacre of his loved ones. He is driven by hatred and vengeance.
The combination of the complex physics, an unlikeable main character, and some heavy plotting means that Nophek Gloss doesn’t quite come together as a satisfactory science-fiction story. Some of the plot points (such as the rapid ageing) seem too convenient and the villain is a little bland. The frustration is compounded by some of the interesting science-fiction elements Hansen does introduce. The concept of the multiverse, governed and lied about by the capitalist Casthen, is interesting. Species bred for slavery or to be soldiers is clichéd, although reasonably well handled—even the supposed good guys do it. The family dynamics within Laythan’s crew are also clichéd at times but read as warm and honest, with characters showing genuine love and respect for each other. The interplay between species is on occasion thoughtful and thought-provoking. Caiden, once he learns of his Graven ancestry, doubts the motives of his new family. He has come to love the crew (which Cydanza uses against him in the inevitable showdown) but do they really love him? Have they been coerced?
Some of Hansen’s worldbuilding, though, fails to hit home or appears contrived. The protagonists visit Emporia—a structure hanging in space, composed of "lightseep obsidian." As obsidian is created in volcanoes, this makes no sense at all (and also seems to be a riff on the Knowhere from the Marvel Cinematic Universe). At one point, the Azura is disassembled, and is put back together far too quickly. Similarly, towards the climax, Caiden must rescue his crewmates, who have been captured and tortured by Cydanza. He manages to run around the building, shouting, and rescue them without being challenged or observed. The Casthen don’t appear to have basic security in place, despite their incredible technologies.
Nophek Gloss isn’t quite the story it wants to be. It isn’t the chosen-one trope that I thought it might be (and is probably the better for it), but it is a story about misfits who all fit together as a family. Despite the dense plot and dozens of ideas, the Azura is still too much of a mystery. Caiden’s consciousness was bound to the ship using an implant, for example, but this is simply explained away using quantum entanglement. The nature of the gloss itself only really becomes relevant in the final third, as vivisection becomes another theme. These ideas could have been explored further. Ultimately, this is the reason I didn’t fully enjoy the book: too much of some ideas, too little of others, poetics mixed with technical and scientific language that may or may not be real. There are times when Nophek Gloss feels like a YA novel with polite language (Hansen describes swearing but doesn’t use any), while the horrors of the torture and relationships between characters are much more adult. Some character interactions, meanwhile, worked well and others not so much, though the relationship between Threi (the most complex character) and Caiden is the most successful part of the plot. Some social satire is present but not fully fleshed out. Nophek Gloss could have been split into two novels (it is part of a series in any case), with fewer ideas and characters explored in more depth. As it is, Hansen’s evocative descriptions of travel between universes, and the nature of her imaginative alien species, provide the highlights of the text, meaning Nophek Gloss is a less than successful yet still enjoyable novel.