Sunday, April 24, 2016

Burn, Demon, Burn! ~ A review of Brian Niemeier's "Nethereal"

Nethereal by Brian Niemeier is a different kind of book. I'm not the most well-read in science fiction, but then, this isn't totally a science fiction book. It's not really fantasy, either. But then, it's also not horror. It's a mixture of all those genres as if they are the same thing. Genre boundaries are sort of an annoyance to me as it is, so reading a book that just does what it wants to do was a real treat.

Imagine if Abraham Merritt read Galactic Patrol and said "Pshaw! I can do that!" then while writing his space opera he read Dune and watched some classic anime and decided to throw those in too. Of course, he couldn't do any of that being that he died so long ago, but that's not my point. That's the closest I can come to describing what reading Nethereal is like.

Imagine a universe where space pirates descend into space hell accompanied by a strange band of rogues and misfits that might not all be what they seem. This hell is split into levels, each as strange as the last as our main characters begin to learn more and more that maybe this job was not only a bad idea, but a horrifying mistake. Oh, and they have to deal with horrifying monstrosities from the depths at every turn. Can't forget about those, can we?

The story follows a core group of four pirates: Jaren Peregrine, the captain of the pirates who has tunnel vision on whatever task he sets his mind to, and his second-in-command, Nakvin, a woman with a lot more to her than there may be, are the main characters. There is also Teg Cross, a hired mercenary who has as quick a sword arm as he does a mouth, and Deim, their apprentice steersman, a young man with ore passion than sense, who fill out the main cast quite well. There are other characters, but getting into them would probably spoil the story. Needless to say, you are always wondering just what each character is really playing at even when they're playing it straight.

Probably the most interesting, in my opinion, is a character named Vaun Mordecai, a necromancer wearing a mask and missing his soul who has a vague motivation to join our crew that is only really revealed later on. He is evil, but he plays by his own rules and has no problem eating his own should it suit his agenda. It makes him a fascinating character to follow along with even though there is no ambiguity in who he is.

How I imagined Vaun
Now, for the negative points, of which there aren't many. The plot bogged down a bit in the middle and became a bit convoluted before finally straightening out for the last part of the book. I'm a bit of a slow reader, but I almost lost myself in the middle a few times. Some characters also sort of vanish then reappear, leaving you to wrack your brain to remember what they were doing when you last saw them hundreds of pages ago. The climax is also short considering it took almost 600 pages to get to it, as well.

Where the author most succeeded, however, was the sense of dread and unease about the entire journey. Hell, of course, is not a pleasant place anyone would want to visit, but space hell is not even a place you want to think about. Demons and baals at every turn, mysterious and horrifying landscapes, even death isn't an escape from the torture, and those who revel in their basic instincts come to regret them soon enough. Though this is a space opera, it manages a bit of thought on basic morality along the way giving it a nice touch you wouldn't expect from such a story.

Of course, as I said, this is a space opera through and through. You have dramatic reveals, over the top fights and encounters, a story that twists as it goes, and an ending where everything (more or less) falls into place. Just don't go into it expecting unblessed ray guns and in-depth politics, but Workings and damnation instead and you're on the right track.

As a classic anime fan, I couldn't help but picture this as a 26 episode series by Studio Deen made way back in 1992 or so. This is not a criticism. That is not a feel anime can even get down anymore, but a point for the book in matching a feel and spirit that isn't really done today. I'm not sure if non-anime fans would get as much out of the Nethereal's style as I did, but that does help to make it totally unique and wrapped in with the world-building that Brian Niemeier sets out to accomplish. By the end, you just want a second season right away. Unlike that season 2 of Outlaw Star I've been waiting around fifteen years for, the Soul Cycle series already has a second book out, Soul Dancer, which I hope to get to eventually.

The sequel

Now, despite my issues, Nethereal is a unique treat in the current world of genre fiction. The industry revels in sluggish books that hide the genre from their covers (this fools no one, by the way) in order to make a bid for respectability from an "elite" group of people who write books that the general populace couldn't care less about. Nethereal makes no apologizes for what it is, doesn't bog down in navel-gazing, or forget that the first rule of entertainment is to entertain. In that aspect, Nethereal succeeds admirably where so many modern genre books fail.

Looking for a fun space opera with horror and fantasy elements and a distinct old school anime vibe? Then Nethereal is for you! Give it a read today.

*NOTE: The author has released an updated version of the book as of April 23, 2016. Being that I finished the book on that date, this is clearly a review of the older version. To see a list of changes, please visit his blog here.


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful and painstaking review! You put a lot of heart into it.

    You nailed the style and mood I was going for with Nethereal. It's a consolation in these aesthetically impoverished times to meet a gentleman of similarly refined and eclectic tastes ;)

    But seriously, I'm glad you had fun reading Nethereal. It really is an attempt to bring back that 90s anime experience that got left by the wayside when the bubble burst and digital replaced cells.

    Then there's Souldancer. I'm super excited for you to read it. If Nethereal is a 26 part anime space opera from the heyday of Studio DEEN, Souldancer is a Dreamcast-era JRPG with the sense of lurking dread cranked to 11.

    Thanks again!

    1. Brian, the real reason why Anime had a such sudden switch from cell animation to digital have to do with the fact that ALL of the studio sourced their paint from one company, which has one master mixer who knows how to mix all of the paint. He had a small heart attack, and the companies figures this out and immediately went about trying a different source. That delineation was 1998-2001 which is why the anime from those years looks really off.

    2. Wow. I had no idea. Thanks for clearing that up!

  2. No, thank you for writing it! This isn't the kind of story that comes around too often.

    As for Souldancer, that definitely sounds like a feel I haven't seen for a long time. There was a game a few years back for the Nintendo DS called Radiant Historia that recaptures that feel you're talking about, but I haven't seen any in a long time. Not to mention, I don't really have that much time or patience to play through such a long game anymore.

    Still, sounds good. Souldancer is on my list.