Friday, May 24, 2013

No Return by Zachary Jernigan

Continuing my trend of genre bending novels and stretching my boundaries as a reader, I approached Zachary Jernigan's debut novel, No Return with no small degree of trepidation. Its compelling cover and back copy coupled with Night Shade Book's reputation for finding excellent new authors, I was excited at the prospect and simultaneously puzzled. Is this fantasy or science fiction, or some hybrid of the two? As it turns out the answer to that question is irrelevant in the face of Jernigan's powerful examination of faith, lust, and personal responsibility.

On Jeroun, there is no question as to whether God exists—only what his intentions are.

Under the looming judgment of Adrash and his ultimate weapon—a string of spinning spheres beside the moon known as The Needle—warring factions of white and black suits prove their opposition to the orbiting god with the great fighting tournament of Danoor, on the far side of Jeroun’s only inhabitable continent.

From the Thirteenth Order of Black Suits comes Vedas, a young master of martial arts, laden with guilt over the death of one of his students. Traveling with him are Churls, a warrior woman and mercenary haunted by the ghost of her daughter, and Berun, a constructed man made of modular spheres possessed by the foul spirit of his creator. Together they must brave their own demons, as well as thieves, mages, beasts, dearth, and hardship on the perilous road to Danoor, and the bloody sectarian battle that is sure to follow.

On the other side of the world, unbeknownst to the travelers, Ebn and Pol of the Royal Outbound Mages (astronauts using Alchemical magic to achieve space flight) have formed a plan to appease Adrash and bring peace to the planet. But Ebn and Pol each have their own clandestine agendas—which may call down the wrath of the very god they hope to woo.

Who may know the mind of God? And who in their right mind would seek to defy him?

I have to be honest; I struggled with No Return, almost setting it aside to dive into familiar, more comfortable worlds. Jernigan has crafted a complex and original world in Jeroun. With Adrash orbiting Jeroun holding the entire planet hostage to his capricious judgment for eons, a variety of races and religions have developed. In this sandbox, Jernigan sets no limits on his creativity. Jeroun is a diverse and complex place with the long dead elders, an alien-esque race whose remains have become the basis for the world's economy and a powerful weapon in the hands of two diametrically opposed religious sects whose violent confrontations over the supremacy of god or man are the tent pole of the main plot. Adding to the exotic flavor of the setting are magical constructs, half breeds with powerful magic and strange physiology that use these gifts to slip the bonds of earth to better understand their aloof and terrible god. Jeroun is a complex cocktail of the familiar and the strange with a dash of audacity for an extra bite.

Jernigan's characters are equally complex and well drawn. Even the more alien of the principle characters are rich with conflict and depth, Ebn and Pol are master mages who both consumed by their insatiable lust both for flesh and for power. As utterly inhuman as their physiology and politics are, their motivations are so intensely relatable I could myself forgetting their alien nature, at least until tongues start slipping out of their palms. Jernigan's absolute refusal to shy away from the violence, sex, or any other topic that might make his reader uncomfortable makes for characters that are reflections of us, rather than mere caricatures. The rest of Jernigan's cast is just as diverse and complicated.

The trio of Berun, Churls, and Vedas is a refreshing break from genre tropes. Vedas, for all of his martial prowess, is uncomfortable in his own skin, more boy than man. Berun is similarly childlike, struggling to find his own identity away from the control of his creator. The most realized of the group is Churls, haunted by her past and full of violence, vice, and lust. The relationships that develop between these travelers is excellently handled, developing naturally over the course of their adventures with a point of view chapters for each well balanced against the others. The amount of character growth that takes place in this slim volume is astounding, which each taking stock of their place in the world and taking steps to assert their own independence.

Jernigan's combat sequences are vicious and unflinching, as are the sex scenes that are liberally sprinkled through the narrative. There are moments where I was taken aback by the directness and candor of these scenes, but true to life sex and violence are often disturbing and uncomfortable by turns. Jernigan leaves it all on the field every time, showing absolutely no timidity at any topic no matter how bloody or sweaty it may be.

The only complaint I have is that the twin storylines never really manage to converge in a meaningful way until the very end of the novel, and I felt a strong sense of disconnection that made reading some segments an exercise in perseverance. Jernigan manages to pull it all together nicely in the end, even adding a coda that explains the enigmatic Adrash's role in a possible sequel. With the collapse of Night Shade Books, I'm not certain if we will see a return to Jeroun, but I am certain that what ever Jernigan's next project might be that I'll be in its audience.


  1. Ooo, interesting. I might give this a try eventually! :D

    Also, have you discovered the BookSworn site? Jernigan is apparently among their number, and I like the snippets of worldbuilding that's up there.

    1. I've not gone to Booksworn yet, but you should definitely keep your eyes peeled for the interview with Zach that I have coming up. Easily one of the best interviews I've had the pleasure of doing.

  2. I hope you do give it a try eventually, Lisa! And thanks for going by the BookSworn site and taking a look around!