This exercise from The 3 A.M. Epiphany is in a section titled “Images”, and the goal is to tell a very short story (300 words) only in imagery. The character should be a part of it, but rather than show their thoughts or words, the author has to focus on their actions and movement instead. I found it eerily calming, as well as detached, which Kiteley says is a common effect of this exercise. Showing emotion through (in)action rather than word, is an extremely valuable skill (duh), and this was a very enjoyable way to explore i.
She walks out of the back door, and into the small garden. The muted light of the invisible sun paints the dome of mist in swirling pale gray. A small path leads from the house to where the two copper chains that hang on their short rods almost meet. Forming an exit, should she wish to exit their tenuous protection. She stops in the middle, staring at the meager yield of the mushrooms to her left. Avoids looking to the right. Sighing, she leans over, plucks a few that are ripe enough. She puts them in a small basket, but does not pick it up.
Her eyes move up, stop at the wall of mist behind the mushroom patch. She rises, slowly, and walks around, so she could approach the copper chain. It reaches to about her waist, and the gray wisps strain against it, as if pushing, wanting to invade the garden. Her face tightens. She reaches with a bare hand, and the mist pushes even closer. Her fingers are almost touching the tendrils when the metal bracelet on her wrist glows and a dagger materializes in her hand.
The mist recoils, as if burned, an angry hissing sound coming from where the silvery blade touched it. She smiles now. A cruel smile, but also brittle. Exhausted.
She turns back, and heads for the small house, leaning to snatch the basket on her way. Her eyes stay focused on the door, never straying to her right. But once her fingers are pushing against the grainy wood, she pauses.
Her eyes close. Tighten.
She looks behind her shoulder, at the small grave post in the mud. The soil there is still uneven, and her eyes trace its short length. One foot. Two feet. Stop.
She walks inside the house, her stride unsteady. But her eyes are dry.
I found out about Bonds of Brass by a random Twitter-induced happenstance. Someone I followed had liked a tweet by Emily Skrutskie, in which she described her upcoming YA novel. And the promise of a M/M romance, set in a space opera of imperial intrigues and starfighters, was all I needed to pre-order. Luckily, I also snagged an ARC of it at C2E2, and I devoured it in two sittings.
Bonds of Brass takes place in the distant future, in which humans have spread out into the galaxy and formed vast empires that now challenge each other. Ettian is a young pilot, training to fight for the brutal empire that destroyed the one he was born in. Having shed the past during two grueling years of living on the streets, he now only has eyes for his own future. As well as his handsome bunkmate and best friend Gal. But when an almost successful assassination attempt reveals Gal to be the heir to the empire that made him an orphan, Ettian has to decide whether his loyalties lie with the ghosts of his shattered past, or his feelings for a boy who is destined to inherit the most horrifying power in the galaxy.
I loved, loved, loved this book! Skrutskie’s effortless prose, kept in a tight first person from Ettian’s perspective, tells an exciting tale of adventure with anime undertones (coming accessorized with power suits, for extra otaku points). The action is fast-paced, the language — extremely evocative. We can smell and feel the world on every page, be it confined to the cabin of a space ship, or a vast cityscape.
But what’s even better, the novel paints a beautiful relationship between two boys, persevering despite being designed to fail in all manner of spectacular ways. Ettian’s feelings — and through his eyes, Gal’s as well — are raw and earnest, unfiltered by his telling of the story, and the adventure the two are forced into puts those to the test. In moments of intimacy, the painful ache of desire also takes on a very physical, if adorably chaste, tone. Skrutskie takes us all the way into the eyes of Ettian, as they hunger over the details in physicality and mannerism that made him fall for Gal.
Bonds of Brass is fast paced and action packed, but somehow, there is always time for character building. Both of the book’s heroes are complex, neither one falling into black-and-white stereotypes. If anything, both get up to some highly questionable shit, ethically speaking, and the ending left me with a deep sense of uncertainty as to who I was actually rooting for. On that note, it bears noting that this is only a first part of a trilogy, and it is wide open.
If I have one problem with Bonds of Brass, it is extra-literary, and personal, and has nothing to do with the book’s merits. On Emily Skrutskie’s pinned tweet, she describes the characters as “two bisexual disasters”. And I have no problem believing that Gal is bi. But, um, as a gay man, Ettian reads gay to me. This is a made-up character, and everything that exists of him is in this book. And in this book he is coded as fully focused on a single person, who happens to be male-identified. No hints are given of any interest he has ever had in other people, not even a throwaway sentence or a stray thought. The only other relationship he has, is aggressively platonic, and firmly defined by shared experiences. The only time, in fact, when he has any romantic/sexual thought not focused on Gal, it is to observe two boys making out in a cantina, and feel jealous.
I recognize that this is not a real issue, and labels aren’t terribly relevant in a made-up future space opera. And to be absolutely clear, I love reading about bisexual characters. But to me it read somewhat like “Dumbledore is gay”, as well as made me a bit sad on a personal level. It seems there are barely any gay male-identified protagonists in current SFF, confusing though that might be, considering how progressive the field has become in recent years. And not that I am that desperate for explicit identification, but it still felt nice when the novel was giving me a very clear signal that this was what I was getting. And then it seemed that the author herself did not support that signal.
This is, however, my own personal issue, and ultimately it only rubbed me the wrong way for a moment, before being drowned by the sheer awesomeness of Bonds of Brass. If royal intrigue, space warfare, planetary adventures, and boys in love are your game, then this book plays it perfectly. My only problem at present is that it isn’t even out yet (release date is 4/7), and I am already itching for the second part of the trilogy.
I met Zack Jordan at Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo earlier this year, and I was immediately impressed by his approach to promoting his work. I even talked about his Last Human-themed installation in my C2E2 Panel Report. That was also where I acquired the ARC for his debut novel, and I was really excited to read it.
The Last Human takes place in the distant future, in a galactic civilization of monumental proportions, called The Network. Millions of sentient species are part of this society, but it does not differentiate between the organic and the artificial. Instead, it is designed around tiers of intelligences, each of which more complex than the previous by a magnitude of twelve. To be a Citizen of the Network, an intelligence requires a tier of 1.8 or higher, with trillions upon trillions of artificial helper minds just below the legal level, operating every aspect of existence, from security and loading drones to Network implants and sanitation stations.
In this vast and diverse community, on a water-mining station orbiting the rings of a gas giant, live Senya the Mother and her dopted child Sarya the Daughter. Senya is a Widow — member of a species of giant arachnid hunters who spent millennia honing their murderous instincts before joining galactic society.
Sarya, meanwhile, is the last human in the universe.
You see, humans were an aberration within the Network — a species that chose not to join a galaxy of order and optimization, but rather to try and conquer it. And so, they had to be exterminated.
Naturally, Sarya dreams of finding others of her kind. And a seemingly chance encounter with a group mind of godlike intelligence visiting her station sets her on a dangerous journey that might fulfill that dream. But likely not in the way she has ever imagined.
The Last Human is an exploration of consciousness on a galactic scale that lit a fire under my imagination. The book has some characterization and pacing flaws — many of which understandable considering it is Jordan’s first work — but it makes up for them with a sweeping vision of societies as organisms, in which an individual can both be extremely important, and at the same time just a cell in a higher consciousness.
The book is not heavy on the tech and science lingo, which I personally consider a plus. In fact, the first chapters even create a somewhat misleading Young Adult impression. However, the darker themes and psychological and philosophical explorations Sarya embarks on create a core around which the idea of intelligence is developed through fantastical — if theoretically possible — technology.
Ultimately, The Last Human is an inspired debut, set in a thought-provoking universe, where adventure is gateway to higher cosmology. I am really stoked to read Zack Jordan’s next work, and in the mean time, this one is definitely a recommendation from me.
P.S. The little Network ID I got at C2E2 has my intelligence tier listed at 1.82, which I now know is SHADE.