The greatest pleasure a reader can have is for their expectations to be confounded, to find their eye drawn word by word down a different path to the one anticipated. Genre fiction is too often comfort food, and the palate can grow complacent. No Return is not a complacent book and it took me somewhere unexpected and new. I do worry that Zachary Jernigan strayed just a little too far off piste, though.
The central catalyst for the story of No Return is a huge tournament that takes place every decade in the city of Danoor and which draws fighters from across the continent of Knoori to battle to the death for fame, glory and a big pot of cash. We follow three entrants—each ludicrously deadly and augmented with superhuman powers—as they set off to Danoor, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake. Meanwhile, an angry god hangs above the planet of Jeroun putting the final touches to his gigantic orbital doomsday machine: "No, he had never been a charitable god—not a father or an easer of pain" (p. ix). Trying to divine his will are the swaggering sorcerers of the Royal Outbound Mages, Renaissance-era astronauts who apply for promotion in a manner Lord Vetinari would approve of: "The administration did not approve of murder as a means of advancement, but they made no move to stop it" (p. 108).
As soon as I read the description of the No Return I was thinking of Richard Morgan. This is a book with a cover depicting one man punching another man so hard that gore is splattered over the imaginary camera lens. I was expecting blood and shit and semen; I was expecting bombast and aggression and machismo. I was, to be honest, expecting a book like this:
Her finger was now buried in his eye up to the first joint. She crooked the digit and tugged, at the same time rising off his erection. After a moment of resistance, the eye came free with a loud pop and his penis slide free of her anus. The sharp pain made her gasp, and she inadvertently ripped the optic nerve and blood vessel free from their socket. A mild disappointment, for she had planned to prolong his pain and discomfort. (p. 214)
Appearances can be deceptive, however, and my preconceptions were changed by the prologue.
Prologues get a bad rep in speculative fiction since they sometimes appear to be endemic literary rash. The case for the prosecution is succinctly put by Ian Sales, responding to an io9 post about writing rules: "Wannabe writers write prologues because their favorite books—no matter how old—feature prologues. And even then, those books probably didn't need them." I have some sympathy with this view as too often prologues serve no purpose. These scant pages often put me in mind of the plastic shrouds that supermarkets are increasing entombing their poor aubergines inside: a wasteful, pointless barrier to the main event which is destined to be immediately discarded. Here, however, we have a piece of text both meaningful in its own right and which sets the tome for what follows.
No Return opens with a description of a society that has to relevance to the plot, that the other cultures of Knoori have no idea even exists. In a hidden valley in the middle of the world, they subsist on the flesh of the long dead elders, the departed, more highly advanced race who who have ceded the territory to humanity. This flesh preserves their bodies but not their minds: they have passed out of the world's thought and the world has past from theirs. The oldest woman alive prays to god; he hears her but he does not listen. Adrash is the 30,000 year old god, perhaps once a human but now somewhere between Superman and an alien. He is heavy and he is not best pleased with humanity but he is even more worried about himself: "Perhaps his obsession revealed the rot had already spread throughout his soul" (p. vii).
So the prologue simultaneously raises the stakes for the story that is to follow whilst holding these events at arm's length. The result is that Jernigan has produced a sensual, meditative work with a tone that is pleasantly at odds with the subject matter as seen in his violent ensemble. Vedas Tezul is a warrior monk with a black-painted suit made from elder skin which increases his strength, speed and stamina. His order are the Anadrashi, believing in an inverted Manichaeism where god is an unfortunate fact but the material must be prioritized over the spiritual. He is the one on the cover, teeth bared, throwing a punch at a white-suited Adrashi in an act of ritualized sectarian violence. But Vedas is less a paladin than a sort of holy fool and as he journeys to Danoor, he follows a path from bruiser to prophet.
Berun is a metal golem created as an assassin and struggling with the deterministic dilemma of all artificial intelligences: what does it mean to live in the shadow of your creator? Unlike the rest of the population who share the burden of god's eye upon them, he must face question alone. He is, essentially, a newborn; like Vedas, his great physical and mental power is matched by a great innocence.
Finally, we have Churls Casta Jons, notionally the most conventional: a badass fighter with a weakness for addictive vices who is haunted by the mistakes of her past (literally so in the case of her dead daughter). The cynical, self-loathing, self-destructive anti-hero we are expecting does not appear, however. Instead she has a maturity and composure that makes her the only adult of the three without being simply being cast as a maternal foil for the two boys.
Together they make a fascinating group with the inevitable and slightly tiresome travel and conflict of fantasyland taking a back seat to the three strangers becoming friends. That would be more than enough for a novel but unfortunately, although No Return is a remarkably relaxed and self-assured for a debut, it is not actually a novel. Instead Jernigan rashly unbalances his book by sweeping across the world to Tansot and introducing another pair of viewpoint characters. Ebn Bon Mari is the most powerful magician in the world, charged with interceding with god, and Pol Tanz et Som is the young Turk who wants to depose her. Added to this already potent mix is Ebn's uncontrollable lust for both Pol and Adrash himself. There is another compelling novel in its own right with these two characters but it is an entirely different one to that containing Vedas, Berun and Churls.
When I reviewed Osiris by EJ Swift (2012), another Night Shade Books debut, for Strange Horizons, I complained that I had only been given a third of a novel. Here we have something stranger: two thirds of one novel, a third of another novel and two halves of a novella, where the two almost novels don't intersect at all and the framing novella only kisses both lightly. It is as if Jernigan was worried that this was his only chance of publication; the world he has created is certainly thick enough for several servings but he didn't need to dish it up all at once. The result is that the main course of our trinity is slightly underdone and we have the distraction of eating the powerfully spiced starter of Ebn and Pol simultaneously. You can admire individual elements of technique but taken as a whole is a bit of a mess.
The clash between the two courses is nicely illustrated by their differing treatments of sex. With Vedas celibate by vocation, Berun celibate by physiognomy and Churls celibate by circumstance, you might think there wasn't much opportunity for this on the long trek to Danoor. In fact, it is infused with a desire which is warm, pluralistic, and grown up. Like the eponymous heroine of Gaie Sebold's Babylon Steel series, Jernigan's characters are both hungry but considerate:
Berun believed in Vedas's uniqueness, surely. He had not tried to convince her that this was the case—had only mentioned it the once—but his feelings were increasingly obvious. He watched Vedas whenever the man was not looking, and Churls wondered what the constructed man saw beyond the graceful flow of muscle under the slick skin of Vedas's suit—the way the material clung to him, revealing more than it hid, emphasizing the rise and fall of his buttocks, the tensing his broad shoulders.
She wondered what Berun saw in Vedas's restrained smile. Thick, sensuous lips framing straight white teeth made whiter against the darkness of skin? Or merely a smile?
She had to shake off her arousal several times a day. (p. 82)
I've quoted at length because this blend of the analytical and the primal is typical of Jernigan's approach and he spends equal time on mind and body throughout the book. Despite her fantasies, we are told that Churls has heroically "resisted the temptation to masturbate for almost two months" (p. 141). When she does finally give in to orgasm, the ferry she and Vedas are traveling on is shipwrecked on a desert island. Pathetic fallacy wasn't like this in Thomas Hardy.
Meanwhile over in Tansot things are a lot more lurid and Jernigan gives the contemporary benchmark for adolescent emo god sex—N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms—a good run for its money. I knew No Return contained explicit sexual scenes and I had anticipated them as Morganian continuation of war by other means. This chunk of the book is the closest approximation—guess where that opening quote comes from—but really it is just naughty. Sometimes this is bad naughty such as Ebn contemplating using sex spells to essentially rape the uninterested and sexually incompatible Pol, sometimes this is good naughty such as the epic masturbation session that created those spells in the first place:
"Before beginning, I studied and practiced for several months."
Qon's eyebrows rose ever so slightly. "Poor you."
"Shut up," Ebn said good-naturedly. (p. 45)
As Billy Bragg once almost sang, fantasy sex doesn't mean stunt sex, it just means use your imagination. Only pages after that, we find Pol cockily strutting along the street past a giant statue of Adrash:
But for that armoured section he was naked. The sculptor had endowed him with assets befitting a god.
Pol's eyes lingered on this detail for a few seconds. Pressing his left fist to his forehead, he bowed deeply before moving on. (p. 48)
Perhaps our world would be in better shape if Christ on the cross was depicted with a massive penis.
This unrestrained playfulness is on display in another notable feature of the book: its treatment of speculative fiction tropes. Jernigan exuberantly picks and chooses what he wants without paying any attention to the box it has come out of. It is not simply that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic—the descriptions themselves are now interchangeable. Berun was explicitly made by a wizard but he might as well be a robot and the language used to describe him even hints at nanotechnology. As another example, here is Ebn preparing for space:
She had stitched spells of defence and detailed automation in the seams of her suit and sealed them with elder synovial fluid. The suit could defend itself physically and cast preprogrammed spells to ward of sophisticated attacks. (p. 91)
Is this fantasy? Is this science fiction? It doesn't matter. This fusion reaches its apotheosis in the epilogue, which takes us back inside the mind of Adrash and presents a wonderfully disconcerting creation story in the form of a sort of dreamtime space opera where humanity hatches from iron eggs. Steph Swainston was perhaps too far ahead of the curve when she published The Year of Our War in 2004; now it seems all the best new writers take this hybridity for granted. Quietly, without any fuss, the New Weird has won.
Night Shade Books are one of the publishers that have provided the space for this secret revolution: Kameron Hurley's God's War (2011), for example, meets No Return in New Weird territory coming from the opposite direction. Obviously Jason Williams and Jeremy Lassen have no idea how to run a business but their program of debuts over recent years has been a huge boon for readers. At a time when so many are playing it safe, it is refreshing to see a publisher happy to confound. So I am very grateful to them for this program but I am most excited about the legacy I hope it will create; Zachary Jernigan is currently a major addition to the program but has the potential to become a major writer. He is bold and confident but he is nowhere near the finished article yet.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.