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Ocean's Echo coverBefore I began reading this book, I happened to chance upon a certain Tumblr post from the author stating the following: “hit right in the solar plexus with the fact I accidentally wrote a 140k captain carrot/moist von lipwig fic. For avoidance of confusion, this is Ocean’s Echo.” I absolutely laughed out loud, and my enthusiasm and anticipation for this story only grew. If you’ve never read Terry Pratchett, you will nonetheless be able to enjoy this book and the main character dynamic; if you have, however, I do believe this reference sets the tone of the main characters, their dynamic, and perhaps even some of the novel’s moral framework and themes perfectly.

Ocean’s Echo follows Tennal, a mind-reader conscripted into the military and forced to undertake a sync bond; but Surit, the kind and morally upright architect who was ordered to control Tennal by merging their two minds, refuses to do so. The two must thus fake a sync bond while investigating the mystery of why the sync bond was ordered in the first place, attempting to help Tennal escape, and trying to prevent a war.

First of all, while Winter’s Orbit was more of a romance in an SF setting, Ocean’s Echo is much more driven by the worldbuilding and the plot; while there is a romance underpinning the book’s themes of choices and ethics and sacrifice, it is somewhat overshadowed by the mysteries of chaotic space, the origins of both readers (mind-readers) and architects (mind-controllers), and the looming war. I would also argue that in this novel the personal journeys of the two main characters—Tennal and Surit—were by themselves given more prominence than the romance between them. They each also have internal conflicts and complicated relationships with family that take centre-stage—Tennal with his aunt and his inability to feel settled in his skin, and Surit with his mother’s legacy and his role within the military. Nevertheless, it is a mark of the author’s deftness that the book still felt driven by Tennal and Surit’s relationship, even where it was not dwelled upon. Indeed, every bit of their dynamic that we do see is absolute perfection.

The plot itself is fast-paced, developing quickly and barreling to its conclusion. While the first part of the book is a bit slower as we meet the characters, get to know their personalities and idiosyncrasies, and are introduced to the overarching society/hierarchy/plot, events start picking up speed and spiraling to new and interesting heights. While a few elements of the plot are rather obvious in various ways—certain characters being more than they seemed, Tennal’s forced sync bond being revealed as something suspicious and corrupt—the twists, however predictable, nevertheless added to the narrative. Moreover, these elements proved a grounding influence on the more abstract revelations that the readers receive about architects and readers, how space works, and the world’s larger power struggle.

In fact, everything is tied together quite well: the worldbuilding is crucial to the story. As such, the setting, the military hierarchy, and the existence of readers and architects prove to be the very foundation for the war, whatever’s going on in chaotic space, and the main characters themselves. It is a cleverly woven tapestry with interconnected threads, so when you pull on one, it leads to another. Nothing necessarily feels out of place, or completely disconnected from the rest of the story. Even the characters themselves feature in this tapestry. Both Tennal and Surit bear the legacy of the past: the weight of their planet’s history and the experimentations that led to architects and readers; the weight of their family’s legacies and the complicated history between these two families; the roles both have been assigned by their society and how each chooses to navigate these roles and that overbearing legacy—how history repeats itself, but also the power of choices and how sometimes it is possible to break the cycle and see the start of something new.

The writing style itself, and the distinct point of views from both Tennal and Surit’s perspectives, are raw and honest and compelling. This is especially true with Tennal, who is charismatic, full of energy, kind of a disaster, and with whom I personally connected with a lot. However, Maxwell gives both of her main characters their time to shine, and Surit—kind, disciplined, steadfast, stubborn—is just as fleshed out. They are allowed to be messy, to be wrong about certain things, to grow and to learn, to make their own choices individually and together. The audience is able to connect with them on a deep level, to see their insecurities and struggles and goals, and it truly is wonderful to see them come into their own both individually and as a pair.

On which I must note: I absolutely loved the romance. De-emphasised here as it is, this particular type of pairing and relationship absolutely makes me feral. Charming and charismatic person who listens to gossip, finds out important information, and knows how to play the room; stalwart defender of justice who knows the rules, follows their spirit, and takes care of his people? Chef’s kiss. The part where the two work together as a team in the second half of the book was one of my favorite passages of the novel. Seeing their skills complement each other, seeing their temperaments help balance one another; Surit never thinking that Tennal was too much; all of the pining and angst and wish-something-real-could-happen-but-it-can’t … Perfection. Additionally, the author manages to weave in an overarching theme of duty and choices into their relationship: Surit refusing to bond with Tennal without his consent; both of them not wanting to start something when they know they will be parted soon; each choosing to investigate suspicious activities together despite the risk, because it is the right thing to do; sacrificing for each other, but also for their world.

Importantly, the relationships between Tennal and Suri and the other characters were also very well done: Surit’s complicated feelings for his traitor mother, Tennal and his aunt, and how their military unit begins caring for each other. There are several great side characters with their own personalities and goals, and the snarky interactions between Tennal and Istara in particular were fun to read. All of this is part of a world which is itself fascinating and well-constructed. I liked the details such as the military hierarchy and the divisions, as well as how readers and architects had been integrated into wider society. For example, a sub-plot with Tennal’s sister and a reader rights group helped make this aspect of the world real, and managed to converge with the main plot in spectacular fashion. The way Maxwell structured the novel’s timeline—set about twenty years since the first readers and architects appeared—was quite clever: a long enough time period since their introduction that these abilities have been integrated into society across at least two generations, but close enough to their inception that the themes of legacy feel very present. This also works very well with the book’s overall pacing, with the shorter nature of the timeline complimenting the breakneck pace of the latter half of the story: in this page-turning context, I found the politics of the different divisions, the previous rebellion, and the power struggles of the different leaders interesting to follow.

I also appreciated that, much like in Winter’s Orbit, this book featured a queernorm world. There were a few non-binary characters who were written well, important to the plot, and a delight to read about. While of course books that tackle the very real bigotry people face are important and just as urgent, it is nice to read stories set in a world in which, despite all of the other issues and prejudices, homophobia and transphobia simply aren’t a thing. Characters are allowed to be themselves without explanations, justifications, or hardships in this area. Indeed, the novel’s focus on ethics, on personhood, on justice versus the law, on how regulations can be used to harm but also used as a form of protest against unjust orders was fascinating. We see how the sync bond actually works, and there are many parts toward the end of the novel that play on the concept of personhood, on how much we know ourselves and others, and where we begin versus where others come in.

There were, though, a few aspects of the book that I disliked or found somewhat tiring. The main aspect for me was Surit and the military. Even knowing that it was unfair and corrupt, even knowing that as a traitor’s son he would have challenges, Surit’s attitude toward joining the military felt off to me. He knows that there is a lot wrong in the military, but somehow believes that it follows the rules and regulations it espouses? I might have enjoyed some of his character arc more if he’d either been too naive to fully understand the scope of the corruption at first, or known how futile it would be to try and exist in this system while maintaining a sense of ethics and justice, yet doing it anyway because of his goal. While this is perhaps not a flaw of the book itself, per se, I simply found it hard to fully sympathize with Surit when he was untangling his feelings surrounding his mother’s pension, the military, and what it truly is.

Secondly, Maxwell really wanted to focus on chaotic space, which in this part of the galaxy are maelstroms that surround the gateway to the rest of the universe. It was fascinating to read about, and quite built into the plot and the culmination of Surit and Tennal’s character arc. Unfortunately, I was not as fascinated with the mysteries of chaotic space as she is, and found a few revelations and twists around it in particular to be bemusing. In a technical sense, these revelations are well-written, telegraphed properly in the text, and do result in some epic final showdowns; I merely was not as enthused as I felt I was being expected to be. I truly liked how the novel’s science worked and was explained, as well as the tech and the mechanics of the sync bonds, but I wasn’t overjoyed about where the story then took these concepts.

However, the ending was perfect, incorporating even its less-compelling elements into a satisfying whole. It was hopeful, allowing the audience to see just how much Tennal and Surit had grown and settled into themselves. They have made peace with at least a few of their demons and are able to build a new future for themselves and with one another. There is a lot that is left unwritten, especially the political fallout of the book’s events, but the ending nevertheless manages to be full of promise yet immensely satisfying and final. Ocean’s Echo is, then, a delight of an SF romance, with a lot of heart and snark, questions of ethics, telepathic soul bonds, characters that are all vibrant and complex, chaotic space (for good and ill), and a main pairing in which each character complements the other in the best of ways. If you are yearning for a cleverly written book with both great SF elements and plot as well as an amazing romance, look no further.

Safia (she/her) is an editor, book reviewer, and aspiring writer of speculative fiction. She loves chonky books, redemption stories, tea, and ballet. She lives in Canada, and her work has appeared in The Mitre, Canada’s oldest student-run literary journal. You can find her blog here, and other important links here.

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