Thursday, July 30, 2020

Axiom's End - Lindsay Ellis

Title: Axiom's End
Author: Lindsay Ellis
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2020 (Hardcover)
Length: 372 pages
Genre: Adult; Science Fiction
Started: July 22, 2020
Finished: July 27, 2020

From the inside cover:

Truth is a human right.

It's fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the U.S. government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblowing father . Even though Cora hasn't spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the internet, the paparazzi, and the government - and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father's leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him - until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.

Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence is completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human - and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

The author, Lindsay Ellis, is a video essayist on YouTube who posts mainly about media criticism, including all the geeky things I tend to enjoy, like Disney. Her videos are intelligent, funny, and just generally well-done (especially her Hugo Award-nominated videos on the Hobbit films); if anyone is interested in them, you can find them here. The main reason I knew about and read this book is because I'm fond of the author's work, so I wanted to be clear about my bias in regards to this novel in particular. With that out of the way, this book was definitely an engaging read. It had some blips on the radar, but this was definitely read-worthy, which is a good thing because this book is the first in a series with four more books planned.

Journalist Nils Ortega has leaked evidence that aliens known as the "Fremda Group" have been in CIA custody for decades. When the government investigates his ex-wife and three children and take them into custody in the hopes of finding him, 21-year-old Cora manages to escape and seeks the aid of her aunt Luciana, Nils' sister who, until recently, worked with the group tasked with figuring out how to communicate with the Fremda aliens, to no avail. Before she can meet up with Luciana though, Cora is followed and abducted by an alien who plants a Babel Fish-type device into her, enabling him to communicate directly into her mind. He, later named Ampersand, orders Cora to take him to the Fremda group before they are killed by another alien called Obelus, who was sent to destroy them. Cora agrees, mainly so she can leverage her ability to communicate with Ampersand to guarantee her family's safety. As the two travel to meet Luciana and later the rest of the Fremda group still in CIA custody, Cora learns about Ampersand's society and how humanity will be impacted by their interactions.

This book had a bit of a slow start for me. Cora isn't a very engaging character in the beginning in my opinion. She's having some issues adjusting to adult life: she's a college drop-out with an incomplete linguistics major, loses a temp job on the first day, and in general acts younger than twenty-one (which makes sense because apparently in a first draft she was supposed to be eighteen and was aged up). Things get much more exciting once Ampersand shows up and Cora slowly pieces together the reason why the Fremda group came to Earth in the first place. The dialogue between them is engaging, and through this you can see that Ampersand does have a fully formed personality. Though Ampersand does have a chance to have his character background explained, Cora sadly doesn't. We know she has daddy issues from Nils leaving, and that she has a tenuous relationship with her mom but loves her younger siblings, and she likes to play the guitar, but no clues for why those things exist. It sometimes feels as if any time that could've been used to flesh out Cora a bit more was sacrificed to either advance the plot or to focus on Ampersand. The focus on Ampersand pays off, but I wish that we could've gotten to know Cora better (hopefully we will get that in future instalments).

In terms of the setting, it takes place in an alternate version of America in 2007. There are a lot of references from that time period from political figures to movies, music and events, so anyone who either wasn't alive or was too young to really remember that period (so anyone younger than their teens/early 20s) might have a hard time envisioning the environment the author is trying to invoke. I fear this book will not age well as a result of this.

The themes in the book can get very dark, but not to the point where you feel you have to put the book down. Colonialism, genocide, and how those two ideas often intersect in practice compose the main thematic points, with the undercurrent of what it means to be human and traits that we value and how we place those expectations on a group we view as the "other." This book could generate some great discussions in a classroom or bookclub setting.

The interactions between Cora and Ampersand are well-written and satisfying. I can't say more for fear of spoilers, but let's just say it is very on-brand for the author if you're familiar with the content she creates (it made my inner fangirl happy).

A bit of a slow start, but once it gets going this book manages to be insightful and touching and is definitely worth the read. I look forward to reading the rest of the series and seeing where the story goes.

Thoughts on the cover:
Apparently the author had numerous revisions with the publisher to get the cover to look the way she wanted, and if that's true, it was worth the hassle. The reddish-orange and beige colour scheme is aesthetically appealing, and the cover image works in the context of the story.

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