(2023) Nadia Afifi, Flame Tree Press, £20 / Can$34.95 / US$26.95,
hrdbk, 345pp, ISBN 978-1-787-58673-4
This is the concluding part of the 'Cosmic' trilogy, which started with The Sentient and continued with The Emergent . It is very much more of the same and if you enjoyed the previous books I think you will enjoy this one.
Having said that, and having enjoyed the first two volumes, I found that as I got into this final one I began to feel a bit jaded with the story and its telling. Perhaps I had not left a big enough gap since reading the previous part, or perhaps the author needed to take a longer break so that it would have a freshness about it. Possibly, whilst I was impressed by the first volume (her first novel), by now I was expecting that experience would have added a subtle boost to her writing and was sad to see it is simply exactly as before; it really is ‘more of the same’.
The story is set a couple of hundred years in the future, following catastrophic events called the Cataclysm and the Drought Wars (of which we finally learn a little, but only a little, more in the final volume).
It mostly takes place in the North American Alliance (which seems to have replaced the United States). The city of Westport, on the Oregon coast, is home to the Aldwych district, which in turn is home to the Academy, high tech industries, and so on. Apart from the government and the usual authorities, who have little to do with the story, the two political players are the Cosmics, who are scientists with deep spiritual beliefs, and the Compounds, built out in the deserts of the Midwest and homes to extremely strict (out and out cruel) religious groups dominated by Elders. The Compounds believe in Nearhaven (rather like heaven) and Neverhaven (rather like hell), whilst the Cosmics are more concerned with the Conscious plane.
In The Sentient we met Amira Valdez. She was brought up in one of the Compounds but escaped; she is now a very talented holomentic reader and a vital part of the Pandora initiative. This is a project by Cosmics in which they have created a cloned embryo of a young woman and implanted it within her; she will be the mother of her own clone. However, things are not going well and we follow Amira through various adventures as she tries to save Rozene (the mother) and her unborn child. To add to the mix is Tiresia, a very secret drug.
The story continues in The Emergent and Rozene now has her daughter, Nova. As Amira continues to try to protect mother and daughter, she finds herself at odds with, but having to work with, Dr. Tony Barlow, the new head of the Pandora project. She learns that the true purpose of the cloning experiment is to transfer one’s consciousness into the newborn and thus achieve a sort of eternal life, and Tiresia proves to be the mind expanding drug which is vital to this process. However, Tiresia also allows for the mind control of large groups of people if they are lightly dosed with it, and this is seized upon by Elder Reznik, the new leader of the Compounds - in effect it gives him a totally obedient, death-dealing army formed of whoever is nearby. In the battles between the Compounds and the Cosmics, Rozene is killed but Nova saved, whilst Amira is captured by Barlow.
She wakes up from an induced coma eight years later, on a space station, from where she is rescued by her friends. She finds she has herself been experimented on by Barlow and is now pregnant with her own clone.
All this is well enough explained in the final volume, so you do not need to have read the first ones. It is, unusually, a final volume that can be read as a standalone novel. However, it did result in quite a bit of rehashing past parts of the story, her feelings, and self-analysis, and, whilst necessary, there was much more of it than was needed. I could be tempted to wonder if some of the excessive rehashing was to boost the page count?
In The Transcendent Amira is on the run, both from Barlow and Reznik; they both want her and her yet-to-be-born clone, but for very different reasons. This volume is the showdown part of the story, where Amira and her friends are always on the move, from one haven to another, from one problem to another, until we arrive at the unavoidable final battle in Westport and Aldwych between Barlow’s Cosmics and Reznik and his forces. As with the previous volumes, there are losses as battles are not without consequences, and not everyone is as trustworthy as they appear. To tell you more would be to give away the ending, though I will say that I found the ending both suitable and satisfactory.
The writing, though, got to me at times. Particularly with action scenes, it felt muddled and left me confused as to the details. Sometimes rereading helped, other times I had to conclude it could have been written more clearly. This had been a small problem in the first volume, less so in the second, but more so in this one as there are more of these action scenes. In the end I just gave up trying to follow the details - how come moments ago that person was inside the building over there but was now grabbing your back?
In real life, there is moment-to-moment progression in any action. In a graphic novel there is a frame in which there is action, followed by the next frame in which there is another action, and it is in the nature of graphic novels that one ignores the details of what happens between the frames. They create a set of action images and you have no option than to gloss over the bits in between. This, I think, is how the author works; I think she sees the individual pictures but does not concern herself with the flow between them. How did that person get from there to here, or from inside to outside a building - who cares? In the next frame they have done so - so live with it. The problem for me, though, is that this makes the scenes jerky and leaves me wondering ‘er? how? why?’. This feeling of the details not being thoroughly thought through also applies to some of the story’s background (at times I found myself wondering, for example, when exactly was the Cataclysm?) and to parts of the plot as well (there were ‘er?’ moments!). It is the sort of thing that editors are supposed to pick up on!
In one example, Amira is being chased by two soldiers; the writing implied to me they were at quite some distance away on a hill, maybe half a mile or more, yet in almost no time they have caught up to within an arm’s reach of the running Amira and her friends. Moments later the soldiers are both hit by a stunner at close range, which we learn takes a while to get over, yet one of them then shoots Amira from a ducked-down position. Was he not really stunned, had he ducked-down instead of collapsing, or was there a third, hitherto not mentioned, soldier already waiting in hiding where it just happened they were running to? Again, that feeling that I was reading frames of a graphic novel. I also wondered at some of the things they did; Amira, who constantly reminded us that she was pregnant, and her friend buy breakfasts from a vending machine and ‘aggressively’ eat them while they ‘marched forward’ - really? Marching forward and eating aggressively whilst suffering the often described digestive laments of pregnancy?
There was an excessive use of adjectives that to me felt to be not quite the right one, as if some emphasis was deemed necessary at this point in the sentence to add drama. One character ‘darted’ to a food stall when he could so easily have simply stopped there when walking past; it was if the tension needed to be ratcheted up when there was no need. After a while I found this unnecessary added excitement to be wearing on the reader. Another example is a ‘nearby’ building whose shade they enjoyed; to me ‘nearby’ implies it was not immediately beside them but at a short distance - and therefore they would not have been in its shade. So often I found such inappropriate adjectives dragged me away from the story whilst I tried to picture it in my mind - more disruptive ‘er?’ moments. Whilst I think the author has produced a good story with some interesting ideas, I really do feel she needs to tighten up her prose, not to gloss over details for the sake of pushing the action, to tone down urgency unless it really is needed, to think more carefully about her adjectives (and if they are even needed), to make it more whole and integrated. Had she really thought through the Drought Wars and the Cataclysm, or were they merely useful but vague background? And so on.
Apart from my concerns over some of the writing, the book is enjoyable and does a decent job of finishing the story - and if you have read the previous volumes you will want to read the conclusion! Like the previous volumes, it can stand alone as a good read. However, as the series progressed, I was a touch disappointed that the storytelling stayed exactly the same; I would have liked to see a little evolution in the author’s style, particularly the clarity of action scenes, as she practiced her craft.
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