Zachary Jernigan's No Return tells the daring, complex story of a fantasy world in which the proven existence of a god seems to have done little to solve the problems that religious dissent traditionally cause. Jernigan grapples with issues of divinity, while simultaneously telling a sensual, gripping story, featuring compelling characters and admirable world building.
John FitzGibbon's grave voice suits the depth of Jernigan's subject matter well, and his performance lends equal weight to thrilling action sequences and dark existential contemplation. His delivery of the audiobook is strong and thoughtful, imbuing Jernigan's words with a truer and deeper power even than they may have had on the page.
On Jeroun, there is no question as to whether God exists - only what his intentions are.
Under the looming judgment of Adrash and his ultimate weapon - a string of spinning spheres beside the moon known as The Needle - warring factions of white and black suits prove their opposition to the orbiting god with the great fighting tournament of Danoor, on the far side of Jeroun's only inhabitable continent.
From the 13th Order of Black Suits comes Vedas, a young master of martial arts, laden with guilt over the death of one of his students. Traveling with him are Churls, a warrior woman and mercenary haunted by the ghost of her daughter, and Berun, a constructed man made of modular spheres possessed by the foul spirit of his creator. Together they must brave their own demons, as well as thieves, mages, beasts, dearth, and hardship on the perilous road to Danoor, and the bloody sectarian battle that is sure to follow.
On the other side of the world, unbeknownst to the travelers, Ebn and Pol of the Royal Outbound Mages (astronauts using Alchemical magic to achieve space flight) have formed a plan to appease Adrash and bring peace to the planet. But Ebn and Pol each have their own clandestine agendas - which may call down the wrath of the very god they hope to woo.
Who may know the mind of God? And who in their right mind would seek to defy him? Gritty, erotic, and fast-paced, author Zachary Jernigan takes you on a sensuous ride through a world at the knife-edge of salvation and destruction, in one of the year's most exciting fantasy epics.
©2013 Zachary Jernigan (P)2013 Audible, Inc.
"This debut science fantasy is a fascinating exploration of how atheism might function in a world where everyone knows that God (or at least, a god) exists.... FitzGibbon has a deep, resonant, stately voice, suitable to the thoughtful nature of the story; it works particularly well for Berun, the constructed man (essentially a magical android) who discovers previously untapped depths of emotion and seeks to free himself from his maker. FitzGibbon also narrates scenes of vicious fighting, space voyaging, and tantric sex with verve and sizzle." (Locus)
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"A stunning and original debut fantasy"
In a crowded year of strong debut fantasy novels, "No Return" is a very strong contender. Beginning with an assured voice, a prologue of a pitiless landscape of an hallucinogenic salt lake, expanding out to a world whose currency is the powdered skin of an Elder race, populated by (among others) rival enclaves of warrior monks engaging in ritualized battles to defend and proselytize their competing faiths. There is a god with city-killing orbital kinetic ordinance at his whim; there are deeply weird and sexualized alchemistic magics; there are sentient constructs of magical metal spheres; there are dragons and ghosts.
The narrative is split along 5 principle points of view in a rotating fashion, across two primary storylines. In the first, it is a 'journey' narrative, in which we meet the three companions who form a bond as they travel to a massive gladiatorial tournament. These three are 1. a warrior monk, 2. a female sell-sword, and 3. a construct. In the other, it is a more political/academic setting of advanced magical research, and the power struggles (and competing lusts) of a senior mage and one of her more junior colleagues with experimental theories. These "outbound mages" make excursions to space, to observe the god and take measurements of his "spheres" -- the two smallest of which had been used centuries before to demonstrate the planet-killing power at hand.
The world builds and deepens and widens; the journey narrative treks us through disparate peoples and landscapes and histories, developing the characters and (through flashbacks) providing back stories as well. Throughout there's always the atmosphere of a deeper world at work, at mysteries not yet revealed. Who is the god Adrash, what does he want? Building toward dual climaxes in both narratives and powering on into denouement and stage-setting for a sequel, a lengthy epilogue serves to further widen the mysteries of this world by another deep breath. All in all, a very strong, no-holds-barred and emotionally impactful debut novel by Jernigan, whose short fiction I have followed on and off through M-BRANE SF and Asimov's. His is a bold, determined voice, with a razor's edge balance of rawness and assuredness; each character's point of view was distinct and fully realized. This is absolutely an heroic fantasy novel not to be missed.
I had never heard of the narrator John FitzGibbon before; presumably he was found by Audible through taking on stipend-eligible ACX titles. In any case he appears to be a US stage actor, and this training serves him exceedingly, exceedingly well. There are some passages of potentially uncomfortable content, from eviscerating violence to explicit sexual encounters. FitzGibbon does not shy away from any of these, nor over-emphasize in a campy way. His voices for each character are solid and distinct, bringing accents which accentuate the character's backgrounds. In particular his voice for the construct, Berun, is as outstanding a character voice as you'll find in audio.
"Gods, elders, men, magic, and space travel"
Every so often, the fantasy genre produces a new crop of writers who boldly break out of the walled garden of its tired conventions, and change the rules of what “can” be done. While it’s perhaps a little early to tag Zachary Jernigan as such an author, he shows promise akin to earlier freethinkers of fantasy. The universe here, which has the feeling of being set in some unimaginably distant, decadent future, seems to owe a debt to Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, but the gritty, street-level, anti-traditional mythos of the world resembles China Mieville's Perdido Street Station, too. Since these works are already favorites of mine, it wasn’t hard to jump in.
Jernigan is his own guy, though, and tells a story that’s confident, imaginative, baroque, violent, and erotic. As we learn in the prologue, the world of Jeroun has a god, who dwells in an assembly of orbiting metal spheres called the Needle, and can’t seem to make up his mind whether or not to destroy his human creations (apparently, one goes a little mad as a god). On the planet below, cults that reject or embrace Adrash’s dominion battle in ritualized street fights. Elsewhere, a community of mages seeks to ascend into space and meet Adrash personally -- a risky idea at best.
The story is divided into two main threads. One follows a trio of warriors on their way to a sort of world championship religious battle tournament: a monk in living armor, a down-on-her-luck pit fighter haunted by a (literal) ghost, and a robot-like being known as a constructed man, whose former master continues to make unwelcome visits to his mind via some sort of magical data link. The other storyline deals with two astronaut-mages, who have diverging ambitions in the works. The characters are well-developed, with distinct, complementary personalities and histories. The ambitiously strange world might have been a little too much to take in in one pass, though; I had to reread a few chapters before the geography, politics, history, religion, and ethnography of Jeroun made sense to me and I could focus on the story. (Writers: take note of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, those pre-chapter lexicon snippets are handy cues.) Some readers might find all the sexuality a bit over-the-top -- it didn’t bother me, but its rawness wasn't really to my taste, either.
However, not huge issues. Jernigan’s confident, unadorned prose takes command of the reader’s mental viewscreen, mixing delicate sensory details (the smell of pine, the flavors of herbed bread), macabre images (corpses of an elder race still strewn about after some ancient apocalypse, now harvested for magical substance), and far-out, superhero comic-like sequences such as mages battling in space, or a robot walking along the bottom of a lake, engaged in dialog with a hallucination while giant fish pass by. Cool stuff. Surprisingly for a left-field debut, audiobook narrator John FitzGibbon is excellent, with a “stage presence” and a range of voices that suit the novel quite well.
Clearly, No Return is meant to establish a world and its characters for future books, so I'll have to withhold full judgment until I see how the story develops, but it's certainly an impressive start. Can Jernigan can keep it all together in future installments, and not let the high-flown cosmic stuff overwhelm the intimate personal tales he’s set up? I look forward to finding out. Definitely a book and a writer worthy of your attention.
"Flawed but ultimately redeems itself"
This is a peculiar kind of fantasy, with elements of science fiction thrown in just to keep the reader guessing. It's a universe in which believers battle non-believers and the god they love or hate is a powerful being transformed by technology he does not understand. Indeed, all of the magic is technological in some respect. The battles over whether god or man should rule are the action core of the story, but it is also a story about journeys, both literal and figurative. All of the characters are struggling to reconcile who they are with who they think they should be, and much of the story is told as retrospective personal histories about how they got to where they are. The structure of the story is flawed, with odd discontinuities and long periods of time when unnecessary bouts of raw description overtake the scene and threaten to induce sleep, but the core ideas are interesting enough. As others have noted, you have to be willing to endure some pretty graphic gore, often combined with some pretty graphic sex, at several points. On balance, though, enough happens that is interesting and unexpected to make it worth the journey as a reader. I'd give it 3.5 stars if that were an option. What really kept me listening, though, was John FitzGibbon's narration, which is just amazing. He turned the book into audible theater. If I had been reading instead of listening, I'm not sure that I would have stayed with it.
"Visceral and cerebral mix in this heady SF/Fantasy"
It took me awhile to put together the review for this novel. The plot can be summed up relatively quickly, for what it is worth: it is a story of a group of traveling companions heading to a marshal arts tournament, and the story of a group of mage/astronauts trying to appease an angry god. This doesn't help explain the book much, however, and the best way to give a sense of what the book really is involves comparison with other important works in SF and fantasy. This is, in part, because the audiobook manages to invoke many tropes and touchpoints in the best science fiction and fantasy novels while remaining entirely its own entity.
With its picaresque wanderings and mingling of science fiction elements (robots, space travel, orbiting weapons) and fantasy (gods, magic, potions) it invokes Vance's Dying Earth, Harrison's Virconium, and Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. There are lots of amazing wonders, an immense land full of history, and the sense of an ancient and tired world with its own rules. The book is more playful than these grim (but excellent) comparisons, though it does suffer a bit from their flaws: if the world is odd and the book involves travel, many of the events that happen seem random. There are moments in the book where things happen suddenly, and it is hard to know what to expect, or anticipate the consequences of the characters choices. At its best, this is wonderful; but it can also be tiring, as the characters wander from event to event.
On the other hand, the attention to the inner lives of the flawed characters, along with their sharply observed interactions and the visceral attention to the physical nature of the characters (lots of blood, sex, and sweat here) invoke Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, and the rest of the recent grimdark fantasy writers. There is plenty of fighting, coupling, lust and revenge to go around, and the novel also delves deeply into the motivations and histories of the main characters. This, too, can occasionally be over the top, and the reader seems to over-enunciate every body part being caressed or crushed, making the reading, which is mostly fine, seem a little awkward and even embarrassing at times.
So, there is a lot of brilliance here, and lots of novelty. It doesn't always feel like the parts of the novel fully connect, though there are potential sequels for that, but it is rarely less than interesting. The sheer intensity of the interactions, combined with the repeated unexpected plot twists, can make it hard to deeply engage the novel for too long at a time, but that might be me. Certainly, don't let these issues (and the mediocre reading) scare you away from an original, exciting debut.
""How could one change the nature of men?""
Adrash, the 30,000 year-old "god" of the world Jeroun, has spent the last 20,000 years trying without success to change the nature of humankind, whose petty and violent behavior (especially through their worship of him) has led to predictably cyclic rises and falls of civilizations. Bored, Adrash longs for the challenge of some prophet uniting the competing nations and feuding religious sects of Jeroun and leading them into war against him. But (sigh) people can't change, can they? Adrash thus has a decision to make: "Return to Jeroun as mankind's redeemer, or cleanse the world of mankind forever."
Zachary Jernigan's weird epic fantasy novel, No Return (2013), is largely about the human (in)ability to change, alternating between two story-strands featuring five point of view characters. One set, a man, a woman, and a "construct," are traveling together across the continent of Knoori to the city of Danoor, there to attend an influential combat tournament that's held once each decade. Vedas Tezul, a devout warrior monk, plans to win the tournament for his Black Suits, Anadrashi devoted to the downfall of Adrash and opposed to the White Suit Adrashi who worship him). For twenty years Vedas has not removed his skin-tight magical black armor (and has not had sex). Despite his faith, he suffers persistent guilt and grief whenever a child recruit to his Order is killed in a skirmish against the White Suits. Vedas' companion Berun is an assassin construct, a robot made of magical metallic spheres. Caring nothing for money or religion but liking fights and festivals, Berun plans to win the secular tournament following the religious one. Able to change his shape and to repair damage at will, the prodigiously strong Berun is a formidable fighter, but he can never tell whether his thoughts, feelings, and actions are his own or those of his mage creator-master-father ("Have I never admired anything for myself?"). Vedas and Berun's guide, Churli Casta Jons, is an earthy veteran/mercenary on the run from gambling debt collectors. Not overly religious ("I try not to mix religion and killing. . . it's liable to get you killed"), Churls will also enter the secular competition. She is either insane or haunted by her daughter's ghost, and the latter more likely possibility is scarier than the former. Vedas, Berun, and Churls are an entertaining trio as they travel through badlands, over steppes, and across bodies of water, for their relationships and problems feel real, funny, and moving (especially the sexual tension between Vedas and Churls). If they embrace change, there will be "no return."
Contrasting with the road buddies are Ebn Bon Mari and Pol Tanz Et Som, half-human, half-elder rivals in the Academy of Applied Magics. Ebn and Pol are Royal Outbound Mages, who don magical Void Suits to travel 30 miles up from Jeroun to the region of the moon, where Adrash lives. Ebn, Pol's mentor and captain, wants to appease Adrash by seducing him, while Pol, her handsome and gifted student, wants to impress the god by attacking him, each scheming against the other's plans and life. With their mutated bodies, intellectual superiority, merciless cruelty, sex magic, and unhealthy views of love ("The only true expression of [which] is submission"), Ebn and Pol are a morbidly fascinating pair to follow.
Complicating the above situations is a sentient species of nine-feet tall "elders" whose advanced cultures fell over 100,000 years ago and whose mummified bodies are so imbued with magic that "corpse miners" collect them so that their skin may be fashioned into Black Suits and White Suits for battle and Void Suits for space travel and their bones may be ground into dust for money and spells.
Not for the squeamish, the book has some unpredictable, suspenseful, arousing, revolting, and mythic violence and sex, most of it integral to the development of character, plot, and theme. The violence is never dully repetitive, and the sex can even be cosmically funny (it might convince you to never masturbate aboard a ship).
The novel is about love, friendship, parents and children, change and identity, free will and fate, and the drawbacks of organized religion. It has plenty of humor, beauty, weird wonder, and great writing:
Beauty: "She drank the sunlight like an elixir."
Violence: "carving people from crown to scarum."
Life: "Fate held a person like a mother holds her child, lovingly or with revulsion."
Romance: "Your name was the first word that came out of his mouth."
Sublime: “For a moment, the scope of the animal could not be fathomed. When she turned her head, the large black object a few feet from her head resolved itself into one of its talons. . . the animal seemed to be watching the city.”
Uncanny: “Holding her daughter's hand felt like air passing through her lungs.”
The reader of the audiobook, Jonathan FitzGibbon, is perfect. His base narration voice is nasally sophisticated, reminiscent of Vincent Price. All his character voices are interesting and appropriate. Vedas sounds frank, rational, and restrained, Berun deep, ponderous, and boomy, Churls sarcastic, seasoned, and coarsely accented, Ebn and Pol intellectual, arrogant, and decadent. And Churls' daughter sounds cute and creepy, a sweet kid learning to be a mighty ghost.
My disappointment lay in expecting No Return to be a self-contained novel like J. M. McDermott's Last Dragon (with which it shares literate style and "weirding" of genre tropes), when it turned out to be more like the first book in a series like Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of The Fallen (with which it shares vast scales of time, varied species, cultures, and religions, and "gods"). Jernigan is surely crafting his own desires and fears, and I'd like to read more books about Jeroun, but hope for a trilogy rather than a decology.
"Poor Narrator and too much sex"
Zachary Jernigan, yes. The world and story were very original and the writing was good. John FitzGibbon, no. His narration was uninspired, very monotone.
Less sex, masturbation....etc. It felt forced and very unnecessary for the story. Its inclusion felt awkward and arbitrary - and this from someone who ranks Richard Morgan among the very best.
Give John some speed?
No. But if so, Ben Stein could play all the parts.
"Wish I could return this"
I was dissappointed when I learned this book could not be returned. This was the first book from Audible that I tried to use the return policy to reject.
Other than the fact that the book was about as exciting as packing my lunch in the morning, some of the ideas are perverse. I'm no prude but when the "goddess" character started masterbating with her Hand Tongue to spit out pearls of god spunk, I shut the book off. The story wasn't worth continuing past that point.
"Appealing characters in a jumbled mess"
This thing really needed tightening up. It is full of unnecessary asides with unnecessary descriptions of historical figures and battles and weapons that at times are laughably referential to Homer. The presence of an epilogue is the author's admission of defeat with regard to constructing a cohesive narrative whole. As with much of modern fantasy, this book needed a fresh eye and a sharp red pencil to whip it into shape.
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