If I conjured up a scatterplot of book quality and readership, putting aside for a moment that one of those is completely subjective, would there be a correlation? Like most answers to nebulous questions, I suspect the answer would be: sometimes. Pinning the reasons for sometimes is an exercise in futility. There’s still, even in this era of advanced math, no clear demonstrable path to publishing success other than “write a good book and hope people read it.”
With that in mind, it seems there might be a need to look at books that went under the radar, so to speak. Books that, for some unknown reason, did not receive the level of attention they might have otherwise. It’s easy now to look back at Matthew Stover’s Heroes Die and say, “that book was significant!” But the book never resonated with a larger audience—and frankly, it’s too late to save it. We can lament its status and argue for more readers to read it, but the awards have been given and the “word of mouth” factor on which bookselling is so reliant has gone relatively silent for Stover.
I wonder though, can more recent titles be rescued from obscurity? Is it possible to pick them off this year’s pile, dust them off, and give them a second look? With the first print runs are still on the shelves, it seems worth a try.
For 2013, if there’s one title I read that feels woefully overlooked, it’s Zachary Jernigan’s No Return. Don’t get me wrong, Jernigan’s debut is not an instant classic, nor is it likely to have a lasting influence like some of the books mentioned above. It is, however, an incredibly dynamic and progressive slipstream novel that Challenges The Things.
Sadly, the reasons it may have struggled to find an audience are legion. None more obvious than the fact its publisher went through anaphylactic shock followed by a prolonged coma and death, then an odd rebirth under new ownership. Suffice to say, No Return had protracted periods where it was unavailable in bookstores and lacked a publicist working on its behalf. Also, the cover is wicked creepy; while the back-cover copy is near impenetrable.
Granting that No Return had some disadvantages, it’s also insane.
God (aka: a hot dude named Adrash who acts like an omniscient Superman) is pretty pissed at humanity. They squabble, rut around, and don’t give him nearly the respect he deserves. In fact, for any parents out there, Adrash perceives humanity about the same way you perceive your children on their worst day. You tolerate them because they’re yours, but if you could hurl a shiny metal orb into the ground near them to get their attention and put the fear of God in them you might consider it. Right?
Adrash does that a couple times through the eons and the result is a rather fractured view of him on the planet’s surface. Namely, two faiths have risen up, the black suits and the white suits, one of whom believes humanity should deny God’s place in their lives, while the other would capitulate to his every whim. Throwing a wrench in this is a second species called Elders. They were Adrash’s first crack at sentient life and they’re a lot more like him—which means that they’re vindictive, powerful, and nuts.
With that scene set, Jernigan begins his two pronged narrative. On one side, three warriors travel the length the world to fight in a pair of tournaments: one will tip the balance in favor the white suits or the black suits, and another that’s more akin to Wrestlemania (in other words, completely irrelevant). All of these travelers are missing a piece of the human experience and find themselves filling those gaps with each other. On the other side are two astronaut wizards trying to get Adrash’s attention in an effort to control him. Because controlling God should be super easy. Actually, it involves some pretty wacky magic that requires sticky fluids (use your imagination). The two wizards are about as inhuman as they come, something Jernigan nails as effectively as anyone I’ve ever read. They aren’t merely cosmetically inhuman, but motivated at their basest levels by needs and desires that feel foreign.
That’s what happens, but what is it about? At its core, No Return is in dialogue with the first sentence of its opaque back-cover copy, “On Jeroun, there is no question as to whether God exists.” And since God exists, should he be feared and rejected, or loved and worshipped? In our world, much conflict is derived from the mere question of God’s existence. So how does demonstrable proof of Adrash change the dynamic? There’s a wonderful thought experiment there, but also a playground rife of for discussions on the nature of faith, divinity, fanaticism, and humanity’s relationships with all of it. And I’m really just scratching the surface.
No Return is not a perfect book. A fact most revealed by an ending that leaves the narrative unfulfilled in any meaningful way. Jernigan indirectly promises that his two pronged narratives will collide. Except they don’t. He leaves his reader on the cusp of that collision, but also on the cusp of of resolving the disparate story lines. With Night Shade Books still reconsidering their position in the publishing world, it remains unclear whether a conclusion is forthcoming. One can only hope.
Even with that uncertainty, No Return needs to be noticed. There is so much more to it that the accoutrement would imply. Populated with a fair amount of face punching, as coded by the visceral cover, it contains a tenderness and at times overt eroticism that’s often ignored in science fiction and fantasy. Zachary Jernigan has something unique to say, a voice we’re not hearing from anywhere else. I dearly hope more readers, and award afficianados, take an opportunity to listen to him.
Let’s see what a few other Tor.com contributors have to say. . .
Jared Shurin: I read No Return this just-past summer—I had it as an ebook, which helped (to be brutal: I abhor the cover, and had I seen it first, I’m not sure I ever would’ve cracked this open). I don’t say this often, but the world-building was astounding—a sort of no-holds-barred Dying Earth aesthetic that reminded me of Mark Charan Newton or M. John Harrison. Everything was simultaneously completely bizarre and internally consistent, really the best of all worlds. I wasn’t blown away by the characters, but, overall, No Return gave me everything I want from a debut: it is original, ambitious and promising. It was good, but, perhaps more importantly, it left me with the impression that the sequel would be even better.
Stefan Raets: I peeked at the plot summary for No Return and thought it looked really interesting, but after the book had been sitting on my desk for a bit, I started getting freaked out by the cover. I tried not to look at it. I turned the book face-down. Finally, I ended up moving it to another room. I think it’s the guy’s teeth.
But seriously, it was really just lack of time. Night Shade Books published an amazing amount of great debuts over the last few years, and this looked like it would be another winner. It was just a matter of having a ton of other books to read and review. I fully plan to pick this one up in the near future. Possibly with one of those stretchy cloth book covers over it, though. I mean really, did you see the guy’s teeth?
No Return is available now from Night Shade Books.