*Overall 3.5/4 Stars Out of 5: Somewhat outside my usual sci-fi/speculative fiction preferences, but solid premise, great atmosphere, engaging main character, empathetic exploration of humanity and values, and hot sensitive-warrior-type men to vicariously pine after (if hot men are your thing). Read on for more details (if details are also your thing).*
[Disclaimer: This is a (basically) spoiler-free review, though a few establishing details are mentioned]
“Aestus: The City” follows the journey of Jossey Sokol, a solar power engineer in service of an underground city in a post-apocalyptic future. Jossey emerges as an unexpected hero when her solar crew is attacked by one of the mysterious and violent above-ground creatures known as the Onlar, and she finds herself and charming fellow engineer Caspar recruited into the city’s militarized Patrol by her government intelligence uncle. Against the wishes of her late brother’s protective best friend, the now-revered and notorious Patrol commander Gavin, Jossey embarks first on a quest for revenge against the Onlar (who took her brother and left her permanently scarred when they were children), then on one for justice to prevail when she comes to know a terrible secret about her city and the heat-scorched world above-ground. In the process, she and those closest to her must choose where they stand, and what (and whom) they would be willing to sacrifice in order to do what they believe is right.
Full disclosure: I came into this book mostly blind (having not read reviews or more than a basic premise), and my previous experiences and preferences with sci-fi/speculative fiction have geared towards fairly fast-paced plots that hit quick beats and character growth as the action is rolling (e.g: “Sphere” by Michael Crichton, “The Collapsing Empire” by John Scalzi). Because of this, I was absolutely hooked with the 100-or-so-page opener, which was much more to my usual taste (it was genuinely the most tense I’ve been while reading an opening sequence in a long while!). After that, there was a shift in tone, atmosphere, and pace that kind of caught me off-guard and forced me to reorient a bit as I was reading.
As it turned out, though action and tension still played roles throughout the story as it unfolded, the emphasis shifted more towards a slower burn, and especially towards the inner dilemmas of the characters, the developing romantic dynamics and conflicts between several of the main characters, and the human cost of the apocalyptic/dystopian future the story is built around. If you don’t like a fair emphasis on romantic elements in your sci-fi/speculative fiction, this may not be the book for you. It definitely countered the initial impression I got reading those first 100 pages, so that gave me pause. But once I readjusted, there was a lot to enjoy here. Not the least of which is the aforementioned exploration of humanity. And the two apparently very hot, very soulful men pining after our fair-though-damaged Jossey.
Overall, this story presented an engaging setup with some excellent atmosphere and intrigue, and impressive attention to detail. It also made you genuinely sympathetic towards the turmoil and struggles of Jossey and several other characters who were confronted with terrible circumstances and did their best to make the right decisions. Jossey is not in your typical majority of sci-fi protagonists, which is a good thing: she’s very human, and in many ways relatable. A real civilian with her baggage (both physical and emotional), facing all that she faced, would struggle as hard and would stumble on as many obstacles.
If I had to offer critique, it would be that at times it felt like the pacing could’ve used some tightening up and there was some repetition in speech patterns and event sequences that irked a bit. Also, I found myself wishing we could’ve done more exploring of the titular City to enjoy more of that intriguing setting before we were kept isolated to the key areas for the duration of the story. Regardless, by the time the final consequences of the book unfold, it’s impossible not to feel for all that Jossey has gone through and admire her resolve. And it’s equally impossible not to want to know what becomes of them all, as the story continues in the sequel. Though “to be continued” endings usually bother me, here I was drawn in as each character seemed to have chosen their sides and values… to perhaps deadly, or heroic consequences.
The stage is set for the sequel, and the author has a pretty solidly baited hook—damned if I won’t bite… equally to see the fate of the City in this future painted for us, as much as the fate of the will-they-won’t-they trio we’ve got here (I know who I’m rooting for… my guy better win!).
[Review first published to Goodreads here on May 3, 2022]