Serdar Yegulalp, Flight of the Vajra (Genji Press, 2013)
I had planned on starting this review out with a paragraph about how I don’t normally read science fiction blah blah blah boring boring. But then it occurred to me that unless you’re reading this at Popcorn for Breakfast, in which case you may be reading it because of the reviewer rather than the subject, you probably are a science-fiction reader, and so anything I would have to say in that vein will probably be obvious to you anyway, so just imagine I bored you senseless with a hundred fifty words about how the last sci-fi book I read and enjoyed was years ago and all that nonsense. And I can skip to the final sentence, which is “so even if you’re not a big science fiction fan, that should not stop you from checking out a copy of Flight of the Vajra.”
Henré Sim, as we open, is rich, famous, and celebrating the launch of his newest, biggest, and most luxurious spacecraft, the Kyritan, with his best friend (Cavafy), wife (Biann), and young daughter (Yezmé). The unthinkable happens, the equivalent of the Kyritan striking that iceberg in the north Atlantic, and Henré is one of the few survivors. Fast-forward five years. Henré has turned his back on everything he once held dear, from spacecraft design to religion, and is living the dissolute life thanks to a legal settlement that will allow him to do so for the rest of his life. Or, at least, that is what he is allowing everyone to think; he has never stopped believing the Kyritan disaster was sabotage, and poking discreetly under every lawless rock he can find to see if he can come up with any leads. To that end, he sets down on Cytheria, a planet devoted to his old religion, the Old Way (think “luddites” here and you’re not terribly far wrong). As Henré tells us at the beginning of the first chapter, “There were two circuses in town shortly after I arrived on Cytheria.” One of them is an actual circus; the other is a conference being held by the Kathaya, the spiritual head of the Old Way. Henré gets himself entangled in both. One by coincidence; he’s walking down the street, turns a corner, and almost literally runs into Enid Sulley, a circus performer who’s bored with life on the road and wants something different. One not: Angharad, the current Kathaya, has discovered Henré is planetside and has asked for an audience. When Enid finds out, she asks to come along, and the three of them find themselves thrown together after an assassination attempt on Angharad. Not surprisingly, the IPS (Interplanetary Police Service, if memory serves) takes notice, and the three of them are collared by two officers named Kallhander and Ioné and taken for interrogation. Henré has a healthy disrespect for authority and initially resists, but Kallhander tempts Henré with what he’s been looking for all this time—the signature of an explosion elsewhere on Cytheria at the same time as the attempt on Angharad’s life is an almost perfect match for the signature of the Kyritan explosion. Henré may finally have a lead.
…but the main mystery here turns out to be only a very small part of this doorstop-sized (768pp.) tome; Yegulalp’s tagline here is “space opera. rebooted.”, and man, does he ask a lot of epic-level questions. There’s enough meat on these bones for most authors to have turned out a trilogy, or something even larger than that. All of them, minor spoiler alert, are answered more than satisfactorily; I was following along with the writing of this book on Yegulalp’s blog, as I’ve been a fan of his various media projects for years now (while I didn’t add a “full disclosure” at the top because we’ve never met in the flesh, we’ve been friends on the Internet since the days when Serdar was doing music under various names back in the late nineties), and where this is the place I would usually speculate about how much time an author spent thinking about the ramifications of that particular “what if?” nexus, in this case, I know the answer—and you can too by pointing yourself over to Genji Press and checking out the blog, though it won’t take you three years to get from genesis to book release. More importantly, perhaps, Yegulalp asks all the right questions, and does it in such a way as to make a number of universal themes still seem almost unpredictable. (I know I should have seen that climax coming from a mile away, but it still blind-sided me.)
That said, and I hasten to add that all of this is minor and can be written off as set decoration if you’re in the mood, this is space opera, and that comes with a few drawbacks. Yegulalp was trying for not only the structure, but the mood as well, which leads to some amusingly purple prose, especially towards the beginning of the book, as well as a penchant for cliffhangers. (I will warn you now—you do not want to start Chapter Twenty-Seven when you’re half an hour away from a movie screening, because you will want to tear your hair out at not being able to go on to Chapter Twenty-Eight for two hours.) There’s also a case of what I’ve come to call “the Absalom, Absalom! house”, after the famous Faulkner structure whose manufacture changes from stone to wood in said novel; Angharad, we are told, is the Fourteenth Supreme Kathaya of the Old Way at Location 14435 (sorry for the Location numbers, I did consume this in ebook rather than paperback form), but the Sixteenth Supreme Kathaya of the Old Way back in Location 14013. I rush to add that (a) I don’t take points off for that sort of thing (because if Faulkner occasionally slipped up…), and (b) there is always the idea in the back of my mind that some authors throw in things like this on purpose just to see if anyone’s paying attention, so I find them amusing more than anything. And all I had to say in this paragraph is of the niggle variety anyway; anything that can be labelled as a drawback where Flight of the Vajra is concerned is dwarfed by the sheer number of things the book gets right. Even if you’re not a fan of the wide, sweeping universal vista—and like I said before, I’m really not (that last sci-fi book I loved? Greg Bear’s Blood Music, which IIRC I read in 1988)—this is one I would have a hard time recommending highly enough. Yes, it’s big, and you will probably spend more time on it than any other novel you will read this year. It’s worth every minute. A shoo-in for my Best Reads of the Year list. ****