Autistic Book Party, Episode 70: Azura Ghost

Today’s Book: “Azura Ghost” by Essa Hansen

The Plot: Threi and Abriss Cetre, two hyper-powerful villains from the previous book “Nophek Gloss,” are in a race to discover secrets that could change the whole structure of the multiverse. Caiden, our protagonist, must unravel the web of mysticism and manipulation that lies between them – and save his childhood friend, Leta, who has become one of Abriss’s servants.

Autistic Character(s): Leta (and the author)

I already liked the previous book in this series, “Nophek Gloss,” and I was excited to see what happened when Leta – a young supporting character, presumed to be dead, for most of the first book – came into her own as a co-protagonist. I was not disappointed. “Azura Ghost” is as vivid, imaginative, psychologically and philosophically complex as its predecessor – and it more than does justice to Leta as a powerful, vulnerable, grown-up autistic woman trying to untangle the influences that have led her where she is.

In the decade since Caiden last saw her, Leta has been transformed into a “Grave” – a modified being, imbued with psychic powers, able to shift her consciousness into a nearly indestructible artificial body, or to move it through a dimension called the “luminifery.” With these abilities, she serves Abriss, the Dynast in charge of most of the multiverse. The Graves are very powerful, but also very vulnerable; their modified bodies won’t survive for long if they aren’t regularly using their artificial ones. Abriss promises that her next breakthrough will solve these problems – but she hasn’t been right about that yet.

Abriss and Threi both possess an inborn ability called “gravitas.” The people around them are influenced by their presence, naturally love them and want to please them. Threi uses this ability more forcefully than Abriss, who makes a show of using gentle suggestions rather than commands. But both of them are used to the people around them fawning on them – and to the unpleasant awareness that this is the result of their power, rather than a connection they’ve earned.

Caiden has a degree of gravitas too, and is guilt-ridden about it. His efforts to avoid using his powers, and to punish himself for having them, actually cause more problems than they solve. They’re feelings he has to work through in order to achieve his aims and save the people he loves, even as he struggles with the ethics of who he is and what he’s doing.

I’ve talked before about manipulation as a theme in autistic fiction, and the existence of gravitas allows Hansen to deal with that theme in imaginative, fantastical, nuanced ways. Leta, being autistic, is more vulnerable to gravitas than most. But treating her as a helpless, deluded victim doesn’t get Caiden anywhere. Leta isn’t a simple naif, pulled this way and that unquestioningly – her training doesn’t allow her to be. We can see from her POV that she’s constantly thinking and calculating, trying to be sure whether or not the course she’s currently following is the right one. The narrative affords her a great deal of dignity and agency, even when we know – from context, from subtext, and from the narration in Caiden’s POV – that she’s been manipulated all her life. In the end the way Caiden repairs his relationship with her is by learning to respect her choices, giving her space to figure things out for herself – and listening to her insights.

Hansen brings this kind of nuance not only to the topic of manipulation but to the novel’s other themes. Much of the conflict between Abriss and Threi revolves around whether to keep the multiverse in its current state or whether to merge it into a single universe. This concept, which could be hopelessly abstract and MacGuffiny in a lesser writer’s hands (hi, Marvel; we are not going to talk about Marvel), is brought to life by the shades of personal meaning it has for the characters. We can see why the concept of merging universes might be so desperately important to Abriss, as well as why it might be ruinous for many others. And we can watch all sorts of other nuances come into play – such as the poignant scene where Leta and the other Graves discover that their vulnerabilities, including Leta’s sensory overload, affect them differently in different universes, and that Abriss has hidden this from them. Overall it shapes up into a conflict that might not have an easy binary answer – but the characters eventually find a satisfying course of action that suits their values and protects what they love.

This hovered very close to the “Highly Recommended” line for me – if it wasn’t the second book in a trilogy, if the themes of autism and manipulation and difference that it explores so deftly had come to a stronger conclusion, it might easily have vaulted into that category. Regardless, it’s a wonderful second book in a trilogy. It’s absolutely full of the vivid sensory invention, strong friendships, psychological and philosophical depth that Hansen did so well in the first book. I can’t wait to see what happens to Caiden, Leta, Threi, and Abriss next – but fortunately Book 3, ETHERA GRAVE, is coming in 2023.

The Verdict: Recommended-1

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, click here.