No Return by Zachary Jernigan

“Men, he knew, often hid their intentions from themselves.”

I want to begin by saying that I’m very grateful for receiving this book free of charge from the author. Not an ARC, but a gift you could say. To that I am very thankful.

No Return is a very strong science fiction debut, one of the most creative books I’ve read in a good while. We have a race of purple people, a god that resides in space, ready to destroy humanity with his circling orbs, and men made of spheres and gears, not clockwork automatons, have you. Yes, if originality was a Hugo requisite for nomination, he would have my vote hands down.

Unfortunately, as I’ve said many a times, concepts do not make a book. Nowhere else does it ring strongest in Jernigan’s debut.

His ideas are really interesting, I’ll state, to begin with. We have two religions fighting legal street battles in the hearts of cities, waging tournaments to earn followers. It’s a different approach to conversion, I’ll admit. The idea that a god resides in space is another tick in his favor. It’s both amazing and terrifying. I can see why two religions have formed, unsure about the orbiting being and his decision.

“In the span of a few generations, one question came to dominate all academic discussion: Does Adrash love the peaceful, or does he love the strong?”

It is in these conflicting POVs and beliefs does Jernigan strike the best: His working toward themes. Both sides of the argument, save a fanatic for the Adrashi, the people who worship the god, are presented. I, being a Christian, didn’t think the thoughts were too heavy handed. No, Jernigan plays a great hand in moving the narrative and his philosophical questions toward his manner.

He gives a good, broad narrative to the story, giving both sides to the argument of whether war against the god is in a sound mind or not. Truthfully, at the end, I had no idea which side I was on. That’s an amazing feat, and I commend him for this.

His writing, as well, is remarkable many times over. He can construct a sentence beautifully, harness a simile or metaphor from his imagination in great loads, sometimes in the span of a few sentences. It made me jealous the amount of talent he has when it comes to creating ideas and putting them down to paper.

Characters, too, are written with such finesse and complexity that I was startled that they were from a different planet, least that’s the impression I felt with them in the beginning. See, Jernigan doesn’t go for the staple of creating different personalities in the beginning, making them wholly different, then fleshing them apart. Instead, he starts them off closely together, not branching off at a leisurely pace, but shooting them in opposite directions. It was a very cool and very interesting way to create characters, all of which start off with the simple tack of “fighter.”

Berun was my favorite of the five, a constructed man tortured by his dead father’s spirit and will. It is here that Jernigan explores the theme of identity, of becoming who you want to be, not what some divine or other wishes you to be. He does the same with Vedas, a very different character than I who I thought he would become.

He starts out as a typical fighter, a hardass using religion to fight his battles. But he soon grows out of that stereotype, learning what it means to be good, not what faith dictates, but what ethics does. He becomes a haunted man, a moralistic being that I could really sympathize with, even if he was a little disillusioned. At least he was honest with himself.

Ebn was the one I felt nothing for, didn’t much care for her ambition compared to Pol’s ruthlessness. It was also her attraction to Adrash that really turned me off, as did the sexual scenes.

That’s my first complaint. I came into this book expecting a fun, deep science fantasy book. What I got was a novel cut with half speculative fiction, half erotica. It was not to my tastes. Not at all.

Where he does show his imagination, I immensely enjoyed the book. I mean, who needs space ships when we have DRAGONS! Or what about currency that is the bone dust from corpses? The magic that is science, used from bodily fluid, was an interesting concept. I’ve never seen that price for magic, that weird of a thing.

But, I believe the biggest failing of this novel is the plot, or lack thereof. I came in with the blurb, thinking the majority of the book would be about a string of fights. No, it’s a big walkathon. Not until the eighty percent mark do we get to see the tournament, and then it’s over in a few short  paragraphs, telling us about the whole ordeal rather than showing us what happened. It was a bit disappointing and didn’t have the impact I felt it should’ve.

It is from this lack of an amazing plot that I felt the novel nosedived. Coupled with the distasteful erotica, I had trouble stomaching or continuing on with a few scenes.

Overall, though, I’m very divided. This is a very imaginative, strong debut, a quick, deep read that I feel could’ve bettered from a few hundred more pages to flesh the narrative out. Jernigan already has a strong writing skill, a beautiful ability to write subtle themes; he just needs more fluff, as the case may be. And the ending had too much of a cliff hanger, making me eagerly anticipate where this war is going to go.

Rating: 6.5/10

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