No Return by Zachary Jernigan – Advance Review [Shadowhawk]

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Shadowhawk reviews Night Shade Books’ latest debut title.

“An awesome mix of Marvel-style space opera mixed in with lots of magic and a ton of action.” ~The Founding Fields

Well, here we are, my first debut novel review for 2013. Last year is when I truly started reading debut authors and in that respect it was pretty much a damn good year. With Zachary Jernigan’s upcoming novel, 2013 has also started off great, more so since there are several more upcoming debuts that I’m really excited about. These include Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, Christian Schoon’s Zenn Scarlett, Evie Manieri’s Blood’s Pride, and Francis Knight’s Fade To Black to name a few.

I’ve often remarked before how Night Shade Books publishes stuff that often break genre conventions and breaks away from the traditional stuff. Angry Robot and Solaris do this plenty as well, apparent in their recent releases and upcoming stuff, a small sampling of which I’ve read already and will be reading in the coming weeks. This is one of the reasons why I usually love reading Night Shade books, because they take me out of my comfort zones and get me to read books that I absolutely would not have read otherwise. Zachary Jernigan’s No Return is one such example.

No Return is a novel about identity, religion, and companionship. With these three elements, Zachary mixes in high doses of magic, gods, one-on-one combat, and Marvel-style gods. I’ve been asked before why I use the phrase “Marvel-style gods” when describing the book. The reason for that is that both the prologue and the epilogue for the novel evoke that very style and atmosphere with the writing. Both the prologue and the epilogue are, for the most part, told from the perspective of the world Jeroun’s sole god, Adrash. The way Zachary writes him, and the situations he shows the god in, I couldn’t help but be put in mind of Thor, especially the Thor from Jason Aaron’s current run on Thor: God of Thunder. Since I’m really enjoying that series, this was all great. I was immediately hooked and I loved all the scenes in the book that involved Adrash. Adrash is like this weird mix of Galactus and Thor in personality, and that’s my highest compliment to those sections of the book, since both these characters are my favourites in the Marvel universe.

The meat of the book is told from a variety of mortal perspectives: the Anadrashi warrior Vedas, the mercenary Churls, the android-ish robot Berun, and the two mages Pol and Ebn. Each of these characters brings something very unique to the narrative.

Vedas is a dedicated soldier for one of the Black Suit orders who consider the god Adrash to be their enemy. Vedas’ scenes present the story of a man caught in between a rock and a hard place, someone who has to fight against events to retain his personal freedom and become the man he wants to be, rather than someone else calling the shots. Churls, as a possible romantic interest for Vedas, is just as good. Watching the two of them interact is like watching a Lois Lane/Serena Kyle hybrid interacting with Silver Surfer, a weird combination I know, but the most apt that I can think of, to be honest. Both Churls and Vedas complement each other perfectly and the tensions between them are brought out really well.

Berun is, at best, a conundrum. Some of his early scenes, including flashbacks of the man who created him, are quite confusing and bear re-reading, but over the course of the narrative, a lot of things become clear, and Berun develops rather nicely. He is a very unique character, both in his experiences, and in his nature, setting him apart from the other popular androids and robots in SFF.  I’d even hazard a guess that one android and his back-story in particular have had quite an inspiration on Berun’s own character, said android being Data from Star Trek. At least, that’s how it comes across as. And it is in no way a bad thing. Berun’s experiences and the decisions he makes give him a personality of his own so that he never comes across as a simple derivative of what has come before, far from it.

The narrative with Pol and his senior, Ebn, is quite separate from the narrative involving Vedas, Churls and Berun. While the three are focused on much more material aspects of their life, such as fighting in grand arenas for honour and prestige (one of their many motivations), Pol and Ebn are focused on mastery of magic and with learning the secrets of Adrash himself. With these characters, the Marvel-style space opera element is in full effect, handled brilliantly in two particular scenes involving both of them at different times in the narrative. The Outbound Mages’ fascination with Jeroun’s only god is a tale of deceit and arrogance through and through. It is an angle that really serves to highlight the differences between the various societies on Jeroun, and it also shows what happens when mortals dare interfere with the works of gods. The narrative definitely does not act with any mercy toward either Pol or Ebn, and both characters go through hell to achieve their goals.

This also brings me to Zachary’s magic system, essentially involving corpsedust and tattoos. The mix of the two is very interesting, and a unique one in my reading experience. This particular layer of complexity adds a great amount of depth to the conflict between Ebn and Pol since the former seeks to limit the rise in power of the former and corpsedust is one way in which an Outbound Mage can gain more power. And the tattoos, let’s not forget those! The “tattoo-magic” of Zachary is much, much different than the one we see in Peter V. Brett’s The Demon Cycle novels, to make the obvious comparison.

For a mixed-genre book like No Return, it is always important that the world-building be on top form, because that forms a huge part of the reading experience. At least, it does for me. The world of Jeroun is incredibly rich in its mythology, its cultures, religions, its people, and its history, with several layers of complexity through everything. No Return is only Zachary’s first novel, so the world-building isn’t as detailed as it would have been otherwise (say, if this had been a second novel for instance), but what I saw impressed me. There are a lot of things on the surface that get introduced from the get go as we meet each character, and from there things start to intertwine with one another, until at the end we have this complex world bursting at the seams trying to contain it all.

Given that we have two separate narratives going on as well, it allowed Zachary to show off more of his setting than would have been possible otherwise. As I said, it’s not all that detailed, exactly, but there is enough here to keep readers engaged and turning the pages.

The pacing of the novel flounders at times, especially when Vedas, Berun and Churls are in the middle of their trip to attend the celebratory games all the way across the continent. It is an almost necessary element, to reflect the amount of time it takes to make the journey, but I still wish that these parts could have been shortened quite a bit so that the pace is consistent and the narrative moves along at a fair clip, rather than getting bogged down by too much character introspection.

The actions scenes in the novel are also to be commended. Most of the combat is one-on-one, and rarely involves weapons, but is no less deadly for the fact. Lots of variety, both in choreography and situations, which made for a great amount of depth. My one complaint would be that we should have seen more of the combat since I consider that to be one of the defining elements of the novel, and of Zachary’s setting.

All in all, No Return is certainly a novel that I can recommend quite heartily. It’s a great read that brings a lot of different SFF elements together, and delivers on the awesomeness of its premise. For sure, this is going to be in my top reads of the year, and I dare say that Zachary Jernigan is an author to watch out for in coming years.

 Rating: 8.5/10

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.

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