Aetherbound – Book Review

E.K. Johnston takes us on a space adventure, this time to a whole other galaxy with her new book, Aetherbound, a fun sci-fi adventure that mixes in healthy doses of magic and technology, leaving you with a profound sense of hope.

Here’s the summary…

Set on a family-run interstellar freighter called the Harland and a mysterious remote space station, E. K. Johnston’s latest is story of survival and self-determination.

Pendt Harland’s family sees her as a waste of food on their long-haul space cruiser when her genes reveal an undesirable mutation. But if she plays her cards right she might have a chance to do much more than survive.

During a space-station layover, Pendt escapes and forms a lucky bond with the Brannick twins, the teenage heirs of the powerful family that owns the station. Against all odds, the trio hatches a long-shot scheme to take over the station and thwart the destinies they never wished for.

The prologue for Aetherbound tells you everything you need to know heading into this new book from E.K. It introduces us to the Stavenger Empire, an all-business outfit looking to break the planet colonization record, reaping and sowing along the way. After they bled the Stavenger system dry and reached the very edge of the galaxy, staring back at them were an untold number of elusive stars. To reach the nearest system, the Maritech System, they employed mages or, “aether-workers”, who with a combination of science and magic, made it possible for deep space travel, and further reaping and sowing.

The Maritech folks didn’t react kindly to being obliterated or placed in indentured servitude, so they resisted, pushing the Stavenger armadas back to their own space. The Stavengers, who had built several space stations along the way, kept on keeping on, doing the best with what they had, biding their time. Eventually, the food supply, a unique protein that fuels magic, was used up and after a cataclysmic event, the aether followed suit, leaving colonists aboard huge floating cities, and those on the already built space stations, to fend for themselves, magicless.

With no means of long-distance travel, the universe once again became a dangerous, but self-deterministic void, with rogue groups and splinter cells left to determine their own fates. What emerged was a combination of survival of the fittest and a perverse sense of right and wrong. I’ve summarized it quite a bit but that’s the general idea heading into this thing.

In many ways, Aetherbound is a little book with bid ideas. You’ll encounter an interesting and evolving cast of characters, fascinating system of magic, a dark and complex history, practical world-building, and very ambiguous moral lines, dressed up with a soft sci-fi sensibility. All of this plus a ruling body who prefers domination through limited choice and genetic control, a conscionable and passionate rebellion, and a compelling “chosen one” lead who develops a keen interest in a galaxy-wide self-determinative uprising.

It’s a buffet that’s for sure, and when you return to the table with a little bit of everything on your plate, you’re not sure where your focus should be. I’ll mention it later but what this book needed more than anything else, and I’m sure E.K. would be game, was a higher page count, maybe even a second book.

Despite all that opulence and the occasional bout of direness, E.K. keeps things grounded and hopeful, firmly entrenched in the YA genre, which it is. So, things like romance and self-discovery are on the menu…along with cheese, lots of cheese. She infuses the book with levity and a recognizable real-world language that makes for some of the more entertaining scenes as the book’s lead, Pendt Harland, will experience many of life’s niceties for the first time. Pendt is a very strong MC and far and away the best part of Aetherbound, so much that the book does stall the handful of times she’s not on the page. You’ll like Pendt. You’ll want more of Pendt.

“There’s a fine line between survival and cruelty.”

I think this is a good spot for a content warning which predictably will rile some up as E.K. does drop in subject matter that a select group will inevitably find taboo. For me, I find that E.K. takes a fair and honest approach to all these issues which are perfectly in line with today’s sensibilities, assuming your sensible. If her language makes you uncomfortable, I suggest the issue is yours, not hers. But there is a content warning at the beginning of the book so the choice to continue reading, as always, is yours.

Pendt has only known life aboard the Harland, one of those “floating cities” that houses many and spends its time transporting goods and services across the galaxy. These trips take years and many of the crew have only known life in amongst the stars. Sounds great, right? Wrong. Life onboard these ships isn’t sybaritic, in fact it’s full of long days, hard work, food deprivation, and oh, your path is chosen for you depending on the ship’s needs, which can include fun things like being a broodmare. So yeah, not exactly ideal, but it’s not like there are any other options for someone like Pendt.

You see, Pendt isn’t particularly proficient at anything that makes the ship run, and is inexplicably constantly in need of more calories than the others, much to her mother’s chagrin, who tends to run hot/cold. When things get more complicated for Pendt, because of reasons, she’s made the decision to disembark the only home she’s ever known. A very big decision to be sure, especially for someone who’s never experienced anything outside the Harland, but one thing she definitely doesn’t lack, is the will to act, something that will serve her well going forward. And in keeping with the “chosen one” theme, she’s compelled in a way that goes beyond the considerations of those not worthy of her company, or potential.

So, she’s made the decision to leave at the next opportune moment, which arrives quickly when the Harland makes a routine stop at the Brannick Station. A bastion of this sector, the Brannick Station, like most stations, is a family affair, with each succession taking over administrative duties. In this case, with their parents indisposed, the brothers Ned and Fisher Brannick are in charge. The station is a hub and therefore extremely chaotic during the best of times, but the brothers run it with a strong diplomatic sense and a clear conscience, earning the respect of its people. Taking advantage of this chaos and with some help from someone sympathetic to her cause on board the Harland, Pendt takes her first steps into a larger world.

Once Pendt pulls her fast one and ends up safely forgotten on the station, the book gets crowded as she’s experiencing many new things and developing at a fast rate, all with the help of her found family, you guessed it, Ned and Fisher Brannick. For a time, the book let’s Pendt and the story exhale a little as she explores not only the station and its many offerings, but her newfound sense of self. For the first time in her life Pendt is her own person, free to decide her own future, and that includes what’s for dinner, and who to spend her free time with. That may sound like an over-simplification, but it’s not, as E.K. turns something menial, like eating, into not only emotionally resonant spurts of character growth, but speaks to the larger theme of free expression. Basically, you’ll get emotional at the simple act of dipping fresh bread into oil and vinegar.

But, the carefree (loose term) days for Pendt and the Brannick’s are short-lived as the powers of dramatic storytelling rear their heads and the story quickly reverts back to impending doom. The longer she’s there the more complicated things get, and the full weight of what’s happening not only to her, but to the galaxy and its fragile hegemony, becomes clear. On top of that, her absence on the Harland is noticed and every minute becomes precious as the decisions she makes will affect not only her life, but the lives of many.

This second act is where many ideas come together in a short amount of time, and we get more than our fair share of exposition dumps. Some of which either get lost in the mix or don’t get the time they need to thrive. As the word count gets smaller and smaller, the story tends to get bigger and bigger, and the third act tries its best to wrap things up in a way that leaves you feeling satisfied. Like I said, I’m sure there’s at least a duology in there somewhere and am convinced E.K. has a lot more to tell.

That’s about as spoilery as I’m going to get here (I’ve barely scratched the surface) so understand that there’s oodles left to this story for you to enjoy, and I believe most will. And fancy that because most of the issues I have with Aetherbound are related to its length, because what’s in between the covers is good, sometimes very good, there just isn’t enough of it. So, what you end up with is a story where every single ingredient for an epic sci-fi series is there, it just needed more room to stretch her legs.

The bottom line is Aetherbound is overflowing with good ideas and her characters are thoughtful and compelling. The system of magic is unique and E.K. lays out a very clear understanding of how this particular story relates to the real world. Her message of hope is clear and undaunted, and if there’s any takeaway, it’s that. So, if the worst thing about the book is that it leaves you wanting more of it, that’s a good spot to be in I suppose.

Before I leave you, a quick shoutout to Jeff Langevin and Maria Fazio, who did the cover art and design respectively, it’s a beautiful presentation.

Aetherbound is out now, click one of the links below to order a copy today!

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