It was a Friday night in early April, and I was up late reading when I got a beep from my phone indicating an email. The subject line was something about a request for a review. My initial knee jerk reaction was to decline on the grounds of I had committed to a number of titles and was behind. So I went to the computer to reply, not feeling like replying on my phone. I had to open the email to do this. In the process I read the first couple of sentences and immediately I changed my mind. “Of course I’ll review your book.” I may have even said it out loud.
The author was Zachary Jernigan, and the book, No Return. It’s Mr. Jernigan’s first novel. It was published by Night Shade in March, just a couple of weeks before Night Shade shut down operations. (To put things in context, a few days prior to my receiving this email, Night Shade announced that it was selling its inventory, provided a certain number of their authors went along with the deal.)
As you might guess, Mr. Jernigan was nervous about how things were going to work out. I have friends and acquaintances who are published by Night Shade, and I very much want things to work out for them. I told him it would be sometime in May before I could work No Return in. He said that would be fine.
Before being asked to do the review, I had seen the book, but with everything on my plate I’d decided to let it pass. I’m glad I read it, and would like to thank Zachary Jernigan for providing the review copy. I’d also like to thank Tom Doolan for recommending me to him.
This is one of those novels that’s marketed as fantasy but could be science fiction if you squint right. It’s set on the planet Jeroun. There is a god on this planet, or rather in orbit around the planet. His name is Adrash. He’s worshiped by about half the people on the planet, who think he will bring salvation to mankind. The other half of the planet think he’s nothing but bad news and will eventually destroy the planet. There’s much speculation regarding what his motives are.
There are five main characters. Vedas, a member of a sect that opposes Adrash. Berun, an artificial man whose body consists of a number of brass spheres. Churls, a female fighter with a gambling problem. These three are traveling across the only inhabited continent to attend a fighting tournament in which the matches are to the death. Each member of the group has a motive for traveling, although it’s not necessarily the motive they’re publicly stating.
Elsewhere, in the Kingdom of Stol’s Academy of Applied Magics, two mages are engaged in academic politics of lethal proportions. Ebn and Pol, female and male, are trying to physically reach Adrash, but not for the same reasons. I say female and male rather than woman and man because these two aren’t human. They’re half breeds, part human, part Elder. The Elders are an extinct race. There’s a thriving market in Elder corpses, and Elder sperm or egg is still fertile and can be used for breeding purposes. Eldermen are one of the results of this breeding. Ebn loves Pol, who couldn’t be less interested. Their relationship drives this portion of the plot to a large degree. Their desire for power and the lengths they are willing to go to attain it drive it rest of their story arc.
The chapters alternate viewpoint characters, in the order I’ve listed them. I found the chapters dealing with Vedas, Berun, and Churls the most enjoyable. Ebn and Pol are both such vicious and unpleasant people that I didn’t particularly enjoy spending time with them. That’s not necessarily a negative. I view Ebn and Pol to be villains, and they’re not your typical stock villains. Jernigan infuses them with understandable motives and a level of complexity that’s sadly lacking in most villains.
All of the principle characters are fully fleshed. There’s a great deal of action in this book, but there’s even more character development. Jernigan takes us deep inside these people’s heads and reveals what makes them tick. They’re all highly flawed, but at least in the case of Vedas, Berun, and Churls, they try to do the right thing, even if they aren’t always sure what the right thing is or even agree about what’s right and wrong.
At the end of the book, I found the changes in the characters to be the most enjoyable part of the novel. I’ve read works by authors with more books under their belts who don’t handle the character development was well as Jernigan does.
The prose is smooth and flowing. Zachary Jernigan writes in a style that propels the reader along without ever getting in the way of the reading experience. He’s not so impressed with his own turn of phrase or flowery metaphors that he forgets moving the story along is the most important thing.
The world Jernigan has created is fresh and original but not so bizarre I couldn’t easily relate to it. It has a history going back 15 millennia. While a map would have been appreciated (and there may be one in the dead tree edition), the geography is described well enough that I had no trouble understanding where things were in relation to each other. The cultures are complex and not entirely uniform. Jernigan gives us information about different sects and splinter groups, which adds a sense of depth to his world building. For the most part, he balances the amount of information he gives us and avoids excessive infodumps.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you that No Return contains a great deal of graphic content, both violence and sex, occasionally in the same scene. (I’m thinking of one particular scene near the end of the book.) Enough so that if you’re squeamish, this might not be the book for you. There’s more than one passage in which a character masturbates to a detailed sexual fantasy, and Ebn’s sexual tastes are…well, let’s just say innovative. Injuries and death, defacing of corpses, and other acts of violence are detailed throughout the narrative. There were passages that pushed my comfort zones. Depending on your tastes and comfort zones, you might want to approach this one with caution. Or not. Your mileage will vary.
The previous paragraph aside, I found No Return to be one of the most original novels I’ve read in a while and quite enjoyable in spite of some uncomfortable passages. Jernigan has left room for a sequel. I’d definitely be interested in reading it.
I wish Zachary Jernigan the best in his writing endeavors, and I sincerely hope the Night Shade situation doesn’t stall his career. I used the world “stall” intentionally. If everything he writes is this well done, he’ll carve out a name for himself sooner or later if he keeps writing. I hope it’s the former rather than the latter.