Firebird (2009), Cover by Tony Sahara
While Conor Kostick’s Epic was a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure in a virtual gaming environment, this sequel in the Avatar Chronicles trilogy, Saga (2008), is a wholly different beast. Its scope extends far beyond the MMORPG themes its predecessor was limited by, although, in hindsight, Kostick did set up the theme well by providing glimpses of it in Epic. The first novel postulated the idea of utilising a sophisticated game as its society’s preferred method of governance and conflict resolution. In Saga, Kostick delves into the more profound simulation hypothesis and its implications (granted, for a young readership).
All those features of the first novel that made it enjoyable are heightened in this sequel and most of the weaknesses are admirably corrected: Kostick writes cleanly, but with greater flair, and treats both his primary characters with much more depth. An entirely new cast is presented and while one or two characters from the first instalment do make appearances, they are in supporting roles, albeit important ones, plot-wise.
The ‘simple’ fantasy element from Epic is replaced by a darker, brooding cityscape along cyberpunk lines, where outliers regularly come into conflict with authority. Ghost, in Saga, is a far more complex character than Erik from Epic. She’s a young, air-boarding thief who makes her home on the fringes of an authoritarian city with a group of anarcho-punks. They regularly, often illegally, showcase their dissatisfaction with the regimented colour-coded class system that allows citizens access to different levels of affluence. Red is the lowest strata, making up the majority of the citizenry; violet is the highest, whose constituents are privy to the council that controls wealth and productive capacity under the Dark Queen’s iron hand.
Ghost’s narrative voice brings the city into focus and, through her dissenting adventures, a setting more severe than in Epic is presented. We experience Ghost’s insecurities as she grapples with the mystery surrounding her lacuna filled memory whilst eking out an existence on the margins with her street-savvy companions. The Dark Queen’s royal voice is equally compelling, if not more so for the disclosure on the status quo of humanity that her point-of-view unveils. Kostick gives us a good look into the Dark Queen’s mindset; her compulsion to rule and her path to power – the sly manoeuvrings and brutal coup d’état which led to her current dominance being reminiscent of the best the Corleone family could muster in its heyday.
The novel is not without demerits: a minor (yet persistently annoying) confusion arises regarding the extent of the passage of time, mainly due to the unclear status of both FTL travel & communication. Also, there is an unconvincingly facile and somewhat anti-climactic final confrontation between the primary characters. It might have fared better had it been fleshed out to accommodate a more conspicuous role in the face-off by the protagonist, especially after her well wrought self-actualization. The ending does open up avenues for even greater scope in story-telling for the sequel. A scope that is evident in the antagonist’s long-term ambition and which, surprisingly, the protagonist echoes, but without the similar power-lust that underlies the nature of the former. Which path Kostick will take in his final instalment will be interesting to discover given the unexpected direction of this second book.
Epic was a fun, innocent and easy to understand quest-adventure which hinted at the possibility of greater complexity through its twists. Saga is rather more cynical in tone and explores that complexity and the philosophical ‘what if?’ ramifications of embedded universes more directly. Saga also presents a twist on the first contact scenario that, at first glance, doesn’t register as particularly out of the ordinary but with some consideration turns out to be rather novel. Even if the perspective has been explored before by others in the genre, it certainly seems uncommon. And while the novel does take on a greater philosophical emphasis compared to Epic, it is by no means devoid of action. Pacing is brisk where even the lulls are interesting and pass quickly. If these books by Kostick are a general indication of current quality in juvenile science fiction literature, then my opinion of the generic chaff that predominates the shelves (largely grounded on my perception of subpar screen offerings based on YA books) might be sorely skewed.
Suffice to say that Saga is a better novel compared to its predecessor – better paced; better written; better developed primary characters; a plot that shifts gear upwards by a whole order of magnitude; and, overall, Imbued with an Unexpected Element of Gravitas* through its thematic explorations, making it a cerebrally stimulating adventure for young readers. Diving in with high expectations of a direct plot continuation from Epic could lead to some disappointment. However, Kostick is to be lauded for the unconventional tangent he takes with his sequel whilst simultaneously meeting the fun-factor of its predecessor and ramping up the scope. Fans of The Matrix will find this [mostly stand-alone] sequel especially worthwhile.
*GSV, Virtually Eccentric Class
© 2015 Nirvan Jain
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.