Is there anything more compelling to read than imaginatively conceived, well-written expansively sprawling, blockbuster-inclined sci-fi?
There is, actually.
Sci-fi with all of the above very welcome attributes that also has a heart and soul embedded into the very DNA of its beguiling narrative, a sense of humanity and crackling intelligence that says things aren’t just happening for the sake of it (spectacular though it is), they are happening because the characters propelling the action are engaged in a existential battle to end all battles.
Case in point is Jay Posey’s brilliantly readable Every Sky a Grave which, its utterly evocative and deeply poetic title aside, has at its core one person’s struggle to integrate unsettling truth into the comforting lies that have made her life a welcome place to be up until that point.
Elyth is one of the star performers for the House, a spiritually-minded armed of the Ascendance’s tripartite government, who is tasked with bringing rebellious planets under the influence of what is known as “The Strain” in the tens of thousand planet sprawling reach of the millennia old human space empire to heel.
So much, so authoritarian empire.
“But her words were not of the common dialect. Now, she employed the secret tongue that undergirded it all, the foundation upon which the Language and indeed the cosmos itself had been constructed. She spoke a sealing phrase to draw upon the hidden Deep Language.
‘A shadow upon emptiness; the many darknesses are one,’ she said, her words a barely voiced whisper. And then to the man, ‘ Though you see me, you do not perceive.'” (P. 7)
What makes what Elyth does so remarkable is that after a lengthy period of surveillance on a target planet, during which she must get to know the world she is on intimately at an almost molecular level, she is tasked with reaching into the very fabric of the universe and, using the very language which powers it, cause it to destroy itself.
That is some in tense powerplaying going on there, and while the destruction unfolds over a period of months, the population are evacuated to a more amenable part of the empire to be brought back into line with acceptable, mainstream thinking.
It’s brutal and its extreme, and at some level Elyth knows that that, but the carrying out of these retributive missions is done with such grace and thoughtfulness, publicly at least, that she is at ease with her role as an effective destroyer of worlds.
There is, of course, some existential tension that comes with the territory, how can there not be if you are any sort of decent human being, which is why Elyth and her fellow weavers and users of language, have a mandatory 30-day cooldown after they return from each mission.
No one says it allowed but everyone knows deep down that while they are not military and speak and act like meditative monks in the mists of a high mountain, they are every bit as destructive as the Hezra, the military wing of government which engages in the more obvious power playing.
Every Sky a Grave begins with Elyth in the throes of yet another mission, one she accomplishes with a flawlessness for which she has become renowned, her mind solely on the task at hand and then later upon her return to the House, on unquestioningly performing the rituals that will help her expunge the pain and guilt of yet another mission to wipe a world from the very fabric of the universe.
But then, at the request of the Hosue’s Paragon or leader herself, Elyth goes to the planet Qel, where something weird and unknowable is happening and which if the manner of its deviance from the norm cannot be determined, must be destroyed.
It is typical of the Ascendance, and indeed any power structure of great size and endurance, to enforce the status quo and to assume any one deviating from it must be an enemy of the established order, but as Elyth gets to know the planet, and atypically the people who live on it, she discovers how shortsighted and limiting that approach is.
Shoot first and ask questions never may seem like a supremely elegant approach to keeping the peace, but while order is indeed maintained, it is a peace built out of sclerotic parts, unchanging, unyielding and welded solid which allows for no change or renewal.
The brilliance of this luminously rich and thoughtfully complex novel is that it posits, in ways small and meditative, dramatic and action-filled, that perhaps there is more to life and the universe even when you are connected to its very essence.
In other words, possessing knowledge of something does not mean you now have nothing to learn, and as Every Sky a Grave moves richly and engagingly on, filled with fully-wrought characters and a richness of thought and insight, you are encouraged to view the world around you as an ever-changing tableau of possibilities and not a fixed and unyielding solid block of things known.
“One branch of the threadline led off towards the small city, and it should have contacted the planet’s surface somewhere within its borders. As she followed the line, however, it thinned and dissipated dramatically, the dwindling traces of once-vibrant energy leaving now only a faint sheen, like dew in spider silk where once a mighty river had raged, until at last it was utterly depleted. Choked off by some unknown and unidentifiable force.
The Strain was at work, And Qel was already dying.” (P. 179)
Certainly as Elyth begins to realise there is more at work in the universe than anyone, even the House’s beloved and revered Paragon, has let on, and that perhaps her knowledge of what is true and what is not does not reflect actuality so much as someone’s power-maintaining convenience, she has to grapple in some deeply fundamental ways that change may be needed.
But if you stop and think about it, while it is good that you can be challenged to see the world differently, and you should remain open to that all your life, the truth is that many of us don’t, and so when the challenge to the accepted order comes, as it does for Elyth, you must be prepared for the fact that your life will change beyond all recognition.
You can fight it, sure, but Elyth comes to realise that that isn’t even remotely an option with Every Sky a Grave laying out the grand struggle that awaits anyone of integrity and personal truthfulness who opens themselves up to the fact that world they thought they know is not, in fact, the world that exists.
In our current age, and down through human history, that has’t stopped many people from putting their fingers in their years and loudly yelling “LALALALA!” – not literally of course but that is effectively what they’re doing – but Elyth is not one of those people, despite what she thinks and even allowing for adherence to the truth of the House, and Every Sky a Grave is a captivating look at one person’s journey from unthinking belief to openness to truth.
It’s spellbinding and affecting, rich and thoughtful, with the novel seamlessly melding an immersively engaging action-filled story with an intensity of renewing thought and purpose that makes you understand that while grappling with challenges to any established order, personal or political/societal, are painful and disruptive, they are necessary and vitally important lest we slip into intellectual and humanitarian dotage, leaving only rigidly-upheld and ultimately empty shadows of nothing in their wake.