The 4th and final book of Brian Niemeier‘s Soul Cycle, The Ophian Rising is I think the best of the four books – and that’s no small complement, as each book is in its own way very good to excellent. Short & sweet: if you’re a fan of mind-bending fiction, and epic tales spun out over centuries, of heroic heroes you can love and disturbingly inventive and evil monsters, then check out this book and the whole Soul Cycle series. And buckle in for the ride.
Throughout the series, a continuing theme is how truth and reality are not obvious to us, the readers, or to the characters in the story. The greatest heroes in this fourth book, Navkin and Astlin, are two women who at first do not even understand their own origins, eventually end up queens and builders of society, and finally are willing to die and surrender what they thought they were in order to banish evil from their worlds. Even that is not exactly what’s going on – but any more would risk spoilage.
The ending is a very cool and surprising twist. I will say that I long suspected some amazing reveal at the end. Hints are dropped. As mentioned in reviews of the earlier books in the series, Niemeier is not world building, but universe building. What I mean: world building takes place in this universe – the worlds thus built, however wild, are posited to exist, somehow, with us here. From very early in the Soul Cycle, it’s clear Niemeier’s universe of prana, the Cardinal Spheres, the Strata, substantial ether and techno-spiritual magic is not in this universe in any material sense. So the questions lurks: where is *our* universe in this story? Are we in this story simply in some other place entirely, where the elves are Gen and the magic is Factoring and warp drive is ether-running? But otherwise unrecognizable as home? Or is there a deeper home?
After an exhausting Sunday following an even more exhausting work week, I collapsed on my bed around 9:00 with the last 20% of the book to read. Fell asleep and woke at 11:00 – and didn’t get back to sleep until after midnight. Then, immediately upon finishing the book, reread the author’s glossary and cast of characters, because I know I missed 75% of what was going on. Then considered rereading Nethereal, the first book in the series, to see what I missed. That’s a pretty good book that makes you care enough to want to make sure you didn’t miss too much.
Because there is a lot there. Some of it is merely mechanical – dozens of characters and worlds and cities and ships and circles of Hell to keep straight. Some of it is the kind of convoluted plotting one should expect over a 4-book series. But there’s also a lot going on in the realm of ideas – right and wrong, true and false, loyalty and treachery, which are loved or rejected for about every flavor of reason one can imagine. The reader must keep it all straight or, alas!, some key action by some secondary character will cause a ‘what?!?’ moment – that then makes sense once you parse out where we last left things with that character.
But it’s worth it. Excellent read.
I read somewhere that this series had been percolating in the author’s mind for a decade or so. It does have a bit of a ‘everything & the kitchen sink’ feel to it, sometimes. I’ve found Niemeier’s shorter works, such as The Hymn of the Pearl and Elegy for the Locust from Forbidden Thought to be easier to get my brain around and so more immediately satisfying. That said, these are the first 4 novels Niemeier has written – I can only imagine with happy anticipation what the next novels will be like, given the quality already present and improvement evident over the 4 books. Bring it on!