Before we begin, I should disclose that I have had numerous positive interactions with Brian Niemeier, ranging from Twitter conversations, to getting very helpful advice relating to self-publishing, and I was a guest on the Geek Gab podcast, on which he is a co-host.
Disclosure out of the way, on to the book, which I will be reviewing in a different style than I have previous books. There are several reasons for this. The first, and worst, is time, or lack thereof. As I start writing this, I still have packing to do for a trip first to friends for the first day of Passover, and then to visit family in New York. Additionally, there is stuff that needs doing for my upcoming release of A Greater Duty, along with some other things that need to be taken care of here before I leave. Additionally, I didn’t read Nethereal in the most efficient manner. That is no fault of the book itself, rather mine, as it was the first novel I’ve ever read for pleasure via the Kindle app on my phone, and, unfortunately, when I’m on my phone my brain first thinks of video entertainment. Additionally, it being on my book meant that I couldn’t read on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), which is generally my most productive reading day. As such, I read this book over a fairly long period of time, which means I have to rely a bit more on long-range memory than usual (I also finished the book about a month back).
The last thing that makes it harder for me to review Nethereal in a very structured way is part of its design, that being its blending of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy elements into a mixture unlike most fiction I have encountered. While it makes it markedly unique, and the blend works well, it too makes a structured review challenging for me.
That rambling aside, on to the review itself! I regret being fairly new to the Pulp Revolution scene, and that I never happened to read the works that inspired it, as I feel like if I had, I’d have a greater appreciation for what Niemeier drew from them. That said, this did not at all diminish my ability to enjoy the book, and I will endeavor to read the other two books in the Soul Cycle currently available (and which I own), Souldancer and Secret Kings, in a much more timely manner.
When boiled down as far as you can go, Nethereal is a story of space pirates that go to hell. Of course, there’s definitely much more to it than that, and we follow said pirates–as well as some other folks–as they deal with literally going to hell and then trying to claw their way back out.
Each of our main characters is well characterized an interesting. The two primary ones are Jaren Peregrine, the captain of the pirate crew, who, for both good and ill, is laser-focused on whatever he sets his mind to. Next, we have Nakvin, a woman with many secrets, some of which even she is not fully aware of, who is effectively Jaren’s deputy and the ship’s primary steersman. Rounding out the main cast are Teg Cross, a smart-mouthed mercenary who is very handy when they inevitably get into trouble, and Deim, the youngest of the group, and apprentice steersman to Nakvin. There are, of course, plenty more characters along the journey, but I want to keep this review short and spoiler free; with Nethereal, more than most books I’ve read recently, even small thing I may mention could spoil something. Everyone has their own agenda, everyone has secrets, and even the reader at many points is left in the dark regarding who is playing it straight and who isn’t. It really is a book that demands you pay attention, which is more reason why I should’ve read it in a shorter time span.
I suppose that can be seen as a somewhat negative thing, as it is preferable (at least to me) to be able to easily recall what exactly is happening if for some reason you aren’t reading at an ideal pace. Additionally, like many books, things do get a bit bogged down in the middle, but as someone who’s had that issue myself in my work (though I hope I eliminated it in my own upcoming release), it’s by no means a huge issue for me. I’ve read books–trad published ones–that had far, far worse middle dragging problems.
The most stand-out aspects of Nethereal, however, are both the tone Niemeier set and the way he blended aspects of several different genres. Without going into spoilery details, the space hell he creates really feels ominous and creepy, from the landscapes to the people and things they encounter in it, and the normal laws of nature are twisted there is just the right ways. I’m no expert on horror, but the horror elements included in this story set the tone very well. Of course, at its core Nethereal is primarily a space opera (yay for that genre getting new, good content!), with much of what you might expect, though due to the unique genre blend it is also different from what one might expect, with more of an emphasis on magic and strange places than on space battles (though I hear there is more of the latter later in the series.)
Not sure there’s much more I can say (again, in part due to my not getting to this promptly), but the other two books is the series so far are near the top of my to-read list.
Nethereal stands out in the current SF/F literary world as something that remembers that cool stuff, entertainment is the key, and loudly proclaims itself as a work of genre fiction. It is very clear that this was written by someone who loves the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres and wanted to write something interesting and fun rather than to check off boxes to try and appeal to a very narrow group of people who don’t buy many books anyway.