Today’s Book: “Nophek Gloss” by Essa Hansen
The Plot: A boy named Caiden escapes from murderous slavers and sets out on a quest for justice through a multiverse bigger and more complex than he ever imagined.
Autistic Character(s): Leta, Caiden’s childhood friend. Also the author!
So here we are – this is an important review and one that took me way too long to write. I promised the publisher a review in, what, mid-2020? And now here we are in August 2021. I suppose I could blame my pandemic brain, which is making it almost impossible to read ebooks. I’m doing better with physical books, and with things like online short stories. But from now on I think I will only be accepting physical ARCs, not electronic ones, because taking this long is really embarrassing and unprofessional!
But none of that matters, because none of that is about the book itself, which is a really important and groundbreaking book, both for its content and for a couple of industry-inside-baseball reasons. I think this is the first debut novel I’ve seen, in adult SFF, to come out from the Big 5 from an openly autistic author? And it’s one of a vanishingly few adult SFF books by openly autistic authors to appear from the Big 5 presses at all. (I know of only two previous such authors off the top of my head, Caiseal Mór and Alex White, and I’m not infallible but I’m more informed about this than most! Sunyi Dean will join their number with “The Book Eaters” in 2022.)
“Nophek Gloss” is a long book and it’s dense, in that rich, chewy, detailed way shared by a lot of the cleverest science fiction. Caiden is catapulted into a complicated world that he doesn’t understand, full of countless species of aliens, powerful factions with obscure motives, and breathtaking technologies that he never heard of during his early life as an enslaved mechanic on an insular world. There is a vividly visual and beautiful element to Hansen’s descriptions, from bubble universes with their iridescent rinds, to moon-sized space stations carved out of a mysterious black substance, to a glass-like, translucent spaceship that can constantly shift its own structure. At the same time I found myself wanting a glossary so I could keep track of the different alien species and other unfamiliar words that were introduced. (There may be a glossary in other versions of the book; there wasn’t one in my e-ARC).
The autistic character, Leta, is mostly confined to the first few chapters. She and Caiden are separated early on, and she becomes a symbol for Caiden of what he’s left behind as a result of his trauma, what he feels he could have done differently, what he feels he should have saved. It can be hard for a character to bear the weight of that narrative role, especially since Leta, who is younger and has an abusive family life, is placed in the role of a victim even before Caiden loses track of her. But Hansen’s descriptions of her are compassionate and intelligent:
“It’s what the older kids say. The ones who don’t pass Appraisal’re sent away, like the bovine yearlings.”
“Don’t be silly, they would have called just the children then, not everyone. And you haven’t been appraised yet, anyway.”
But she was ten, it was soon. The empathy, sensitivity, and logic that could qualify her as a sublime clinician also crippled her everyday life as the callous people around her set her up to fail. Caiden hugged her, careful of the bruises peeking over her shoulder and forearm, the sight of them igniting a well-worn urge to protect and shelter and mend.
Leta experiences shutdown and sensory overload without losing Caiden’s understanding or good opinion, and her remembered insights often steer Caiden correctly when his own instincts tempt him to close down or to be too harsh with himself and the world.
Caiden isn’t autistic, but his overwhelmed reactions to the wider universe, especially early in the book when he’s very new to it all, resonate with me as an autistic reader:
The size struck him first. The interior was as vast and multi-leveled as the outside. He blinked at colors and lights, surfaces flickering with imagery like windows to other worlds. Tiny ships and darts whizzed in the open air while beings of all sort milled and streamed and… pulsed. Caiden couldn’t tell what was beast and what was human or whether there was any clear distinction. Individuals and groups clashed. Language blurred the air; everything from guttural rumbles to bird-like trills. The space was stuffed from ceiling to floor with sensory oppression…
Eyes closed, the sensory overload was all he could focus on as the two women moved him to another room. In the back of his mind he thought of Leta’s synesthetic hypersensitivity, how sound sometimes cut her, a graze might bludgeon, and textures sat cruelly on her tongue. Like this… How had she possibly endured?
Trauma and grief are major themes in this book; not only did Caiden grow up enslaved, but the way he escapes that life into the wider universe (I’m going to try to say this without spoilers) is intensely traumatic. A lot of his character arc involves grappling with that trauma and with how to respond to it. Caiden wants justice and for the people who caused the trauma to be prevented from harming anyone again. Is that goal worth harming and further traumatizing himself? Is it worth pushing himself in ways that will make his recovery more difficult? Is it worth pushing people away? Is it worth collaborating with people who are causing other kinds of harm, in ways he only partly understands? This is not a book that gives easy answers to such questions but one that shows Caiden and the people around him grappling with them in emotionally realistic ways, even if the actions available to him (such as a technology that can record his memories and show the world what happened, but at the cost of making his flashbacks and trauma nightmares worse) are science-fictionally fanciful.
Another major theme is manipulation, which is a theme I always love seeing from autistic authors. There are beings in the world of “Nophek Gloss” who can read memories and take on their physical shape, as well as beings who can naturally make the beings around them want to do as they say. We see character using these powers to empathize and help other people, as well as characters using these powers ruthlessly to hurt and control. Caiden himself has to grapple with the question of whether any of his attachments to other beings – including his inevitable ragtag found-family-on-a-spaceship – are “real,” or if he’s unknowingly influenced them to happen.
These kinds of themes – as well as slavery, violence, and extremely high stakes – pull together in ways that verge on the grimdark. There are some intensely unpleasant scenes throughout this book! But it’s the kind of darkness that inevitably resolves into hope. No matter how Caiden struggles and compromises himself, he’s a character who is loved and loves others more than he’ll let himself admit, and that found-family loyalty is what gets him through (and defeats at least one major villain) in the end.
There’s an intriguing teaser at the very end which I won’t spoil, but the early promo for the sequel, “Azura Ghost,” makes it clear that there will be an autistic POV character. This might make “Azura Ghost,” coming out in early 2022, into yet another glass-ceiling-breaker – it could be the first #ownvoices autistic novel, in adult SFF, to be published by the Big 5.
Meanwhile, “Nophek Gloss” is a mind-expanding sci-fi doorstopper in the best tradition of mind-expanding sci-fi doorstoppers, vivid and imaginative and psychologically complex, and is well worth a read.
I will try very hard to take less than a year to review the second one!
The Verdict: Recommended-2
For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.