Aetherbound, by E.K. Johnston
Sometimes books are captivating due to singular action, resonant characters, or innovative world-building. E.K. Johnston’s newest novel Aetherbound, a sci-fi coming of age story, is a little bit of all of those.
The novel introduces us to Pendt as a 5-year old on the family-run interstellar freighter Harland, when it is discovered that her particular connection to the magical aether is not valuable to the running of the ship. In an instant, she becomes less a family member than a commodity to be bartered when she comes of age.
It is a harsh realization, but this is the only world that Pendt knows; as she grows, we chafe at her treatment and the austere life aboard the Harland more than she does. Still, the acquiescence that duty to family requires of her does not fully quell her spirit, and when Pendt finally realizes what her future holds at the hands of the only social structure she has ever known, she makes a desperate bid for freedom.
Now, I’ll be honest. This book lacks a lot of depth. The exposition of the universe that Pendt lives in is given in a clinical, impersonal fashion, forcing the reader to accept it rather than convincing us of its validity. The most compelling part of the book happens in the first half of the story, and the last third of the book does not have the same emotional draw as the rest of the narrative. Some of it is rushed and falls flat; a major conflict peters out rather than having a substantive conclusion.
But oh, the first part of the book, where Pendt’s existence on the Harland is established, is like nothing I have read before (and I’ve read a LOT of books in this genre). It is hard to develop a character who is brought up in an emotionally devoid environment and keep them from becoming a whining/morose cliché or devolving into an angry/vengeful trope, but author E.K. Johnston nails it. Pendt is an intriguing character because she doesn’t follow the expected deprivation-path, and I quickly became vested in following her story due to that initial footing. I am quite willing to give an author some leeway down the line in a narrative if they give me a consistent, strong foundation, and Johnston indeed deserves that consideration.
And this book ticks a lot of other boxes, as well, as one would expect in a YA novel – I don’t think there are any spoilers here. The main character struggles, but ultimately overcomes – although not without some sacrifice. There is emotional growth, through adversity and self-realization. The ending is not tragic. But in the best of YA fashion, the journey is where the strength of this narrative lies, not in some kind of eureka outcome, and Aetherbound takes the reader on a very worthwhile journey, indeed.
– Sharon Browning