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Friday, June 22, 2012

Osiris - E.J. Swift

It begins with the execution of Eirik 9968, rumored leader of the NWO. Vikram, his friend and sometime conspirator, watches from the crowd as the skadi carry out The Council's sentence. Not a Citizen and only recently released from prison himself, he's helpless to stop it. Also watching is Adelaide Mystik, daughter of a founding family, tabloid darling, and eternal disappointment. She can barely watch as Eirik drowns, chained to the bottom of a sealed tank. The Council hopes that Eirik's death will quell the uprisings in Osiris' western sector. They're wrong.

Osiris, E.J. Swift's debut novel, is a title pregnant with meaning. The Egyptian god of the afterlife and underworld, Osiris judges the dead, sending them on to their rewards, which for the elite of Egypt meant eternal life. Through the hope of new life after death Osiris also associates with nature, in particular the annual flooding of the Nile, and crops that spring from it. In Swift's world, the city of Osiris is the afterlife made real. The last bastion of human civilization -- surviving on the ocean and disconnected from land -- it is literally the life come after a world torn apart by climate change and resource wars. But, like most belief systems that preach a life beyond this one, Osiris also separates those judged worthy and those damned to an eternity of pain.

To Citizens of Osiris, life is good, echoing their Egyptian appellation who was often described as "He Who is Permanently Benign and Youthful". Created around sustainable principles, the city is self sufficient for those granted access.
"a shimmering metropolis sunk shin deep into the ocean. Before dawn, mist obscured the entire city, enveloping the thousands of pyramid skyscraper in its damp, arcane touch. It was noon now, and the fog had mostly dissipated. Deceptive sunshine polished the tapering structures of glass and metal, turning the bridges and shuttle lines that webbed them into silver threads. The solar skins of the towers greedily reaped this bounty of heat and light."
Unfortunately, the western sector is denied these things, reliant on the benevolence of the The Council to provide, an emotion rarely felt through the insulation wrapped around them. Crippled by food shortages, drug and human trafficking, and continual power failures, the west is not unlike a modern day war zone. Cut off from Osiris proper by a militarized border, people like Eirik and Vikram are the few willing to speak out against the injustice.

Structured around two points of view, Vikram and Adelaide, Osiris switches every chapter, often overlapping scenes to provide the perspective of each. As the novel begins, the pair could not be further apart, divorced by economics and geography, but also by incompatible world views. Vikram, looking at the Osiris elite wonders,
How could you trust the sadness of someone who had never seen that cold could kill? Who had never seen a gun fired, never been afraid to sleep?
It's a sentiment that resonates in the world today, where so much of the government represents a small subsection of the educated elite.

Despite the hurdles, Adelaide has more in common with Vikram than is readily apparent. With her twin brother missing, and a family seemingly unwilling to find him, she finds herself as willing as Vikram to bring change. Using each other to further their own ends, Osiris is at heart a fascinating character study of a have and a have-not in a world defined by the possession of food, water, and energy.  In short, a microcosm of the world we live in.

If I were writing this review with only mind toward the ideas behind the novel and the subtext that runs through it, I would call it a crowning achievement. It's unfortunate then that I won't be able to be quite so glowing. While Swift's writing is exceptional, vivid and compelling, Osiris lacks any sense of pace. Even from the opening pages, with a prologue written in an inaccessible voice and a first chapter that lacks any definable hook, Swift struggles to consistently demonstrate narrative purpose. It's too easy to put the novel down after every chapter and even easier to put it aside for a day or two in between "Parts" (there are four).

It could be argued, compellingly so I think, that these fits and starts reflect Vikram and Adelaide who themselves are full of misfired failures. Likewise, if Osiris is as much a glimpse into the future as a reflection of the world today, the novel's structure points to the notion, that flying in the face of scientific reality, finding a joint impetus to move forward is the most improbable of outcomes. If this is Swift's message, and it can be powerful, I'm not sure it excuses the inability to compel me forward in the narrative itself.

Part Waterworld, part 1984, E.J. Swift offers a new dialogue in Night Shade's conversation on climate change that began with Paolo Baciagalupi's The Windup Girl. Even in its most frustrating moments, I found Osiris to be a novel that deserves to be read. Swift's talent as a writer can't be questioned, and it's clear to me that there exists an intent behind her work. It lends a depth that helped me persevere, not only to finish, but to anticipate the sequel. I'm hopeful that other patient readers will take the time to find the beauty in it that I ultimately did.


It should be noted, that over the last eighteen months I've tended to heap the honors on Night Shade. I have believed, and still do, that in terms of editorial direction and a willingness to push the envelope of genre fiction, they are the premiere publisher today. But, I feel it necessary to point out that the problems I describe in Osiris are becoming all too commonplace in their novels. From God's War, to The Emperor's Knife, to The Winds of Khalakovo, Night Shade seems willing to accept a brilliance of ideas in the face of tedious structure.

It could be a result of the number of debut authors they've published, or the size of their editorial team (small), or the fact that they don't have the clout to compel authors to rewrite large sections of their manuscripts. Or it could be all of the above or none of the above. Nevertheless, it's a theme I'm noticing and one that gives me pause. Ideas and beautiful prose are, in and of themselves, not always enough to carry a novel, much less an entire line of them. I'm just one reader, but food for thought, perhaps.

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At June 22, 2012 at 11:42 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

I do wonder if structure and pacing are weaknesses of these books in particular because they are debut authors? This dovetails into a discussion of how harsh (or not) to judge first novels.

I have noticed changes and growth in many of the author's second works, so I wonder if its first novel inexperience? The question is, am I being too lenient on the first books?

At June 22, 2012 at 12:28 PM , Blogger Neth said...

that's an interesting trend. My experience is that pacing (which is often just another version of structure) is the biggest weakness of new authors. So, I'd tend to say it's more a debut author issue - but that doesn't mean there isn't more to it.

At June 23, 2012 at 6:48 AM , Anonymous redhead said...

Thanks for the honest review. I too am a huge fan of Night Shade, and I assume an editor there saw some kind of potential in their debut authors. I've had a similar experience with Angry Robot, as much as I love them, they run hot and cold for me. I've read stuff from them that I adore, and other items are close to terrible, with very little inbetween, and it's mostly debut authors.

did you see this post on if First novels can be forgiven, over at World in the Satin Bag?


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