Kenna is starving.
He has been for a while now. And if his parents cared for anything as much as they care for their Inevitable Philosophies, the highly specific and highly amorphous guiding lights they’ve dedicated their lives to, maybe he wouldn’t be so hungry. But traveling the stars in cramped transport units, unable to fend off bullies who steal his highly-processed nutrition crackers, Kenna arrives at Savor Station so hungry, he’s almost willing to steal to live. And then he stumbles upon the line for The Sol Majestic. A restaurant so renowned, so grand, it holds reservations years in advance, its mysterious owner Paulius hosts a contest every night: one table, free of charge, for anyone who can answer a riddle. When Kenna stumbles upon the right answer, his life is forever changed—the doors to The Sol Majestic are opened to him, an entry to a world he never thought he’d ever see.
Paulius is an artist. An eccentric. A genius with no comprehension of mortal restraint. And when he learns that Kenna has never truly eaten—and that the boy will soon have to choose his own Inevitable Philosophy in a Wisdom Ceremony—he acts without thought for consequence. Paulius stakes the future of The Sol Majestic on Kenna and his Wisdom Ceremony, determined to give him a chance at understanding his own culture, his future, and himself.
What follows is a story of family and food, an interrogation of what nourishes us and what elevates the mundane into art. Best known for his ‘Mancer series, Ferrett Steinmetz weaves one of the most unique science fiction stories I’ve read in some time. Set in the world of his Nebula-nominated novelette, “Sauerkraut Station,” The Sol Majestic is a novel that is as rich as the dishes Steinmetz concocts, and twice as satisfying. Steinmetz’s work soars because of the intricate braiding between his worldbuilding and character building; each influences the other, and the worlds these beautifully complicated people come from have shaped their principles, joys, sorrows, and contradictions.
Steinmetz’s mastery of character is especially evident in Kenna, a sixteen year old boy struggling to save a restaurant he sees as a home and the people he sees as a family, and trying to find love with a gorgeous boy. He finds himself willing to sacrifice his own deep-seated ideas of integrity and dignity to keep everything from crashing down around him; he’s a young man willing to live a lie in service to finding truth. Steinmetz’s examination of his crises, both internal and external, are some of the best parts of the book as Kenna has to continuously calibrate to the world around him until he’s forced to take a stand.
And Kenna is just the tip of the iceberg of these intriguing, complicated characters. Paulius is equally fleshed out, but there are many more that make The Sol Majestic’s heart beat, both the book and the titular kitchen. Scrimshaw, the severe and austere manager of The Sol Majestic, constantly reining in Paulius and his visions of grandeur. Montgomery, an adrenaline-junkie—literally addicted to experiencing new, never-before-done things in this universe—who helps act as Kenna’ tough-love mentor. And of course, Benzo, a younger chef in the kitchen, who has dedicated himself to making a perfect broth, for reasons that become heart-breakingly clear as the story goes on. Between these characters’ rich, inner lives, and the other small tidbits of the world that Steinmetz populates the novel with, The Sol Majestic becomes a feast, offering many different dishes and tastes for your reading palate.
The Sol Majestic reminds us, crucially, that science fiction doesn’t always have to be about spaceships or explosions, (though there are a few within these pages). Rather, this story succeeds because it is about the tangled web of relationships between people being challenged, changed, and evolving in a shared event. It works because it illustrates how one person can stand up to be a light for others, but only because they have had others in their life to help them and steer them. The Sol Majestic is a beautiful story because Steinmetz understands that stories, much like food, can lift people up, inspire them, nourish them, and transform them. The Sol Majestic is a success of a story, and at this point, I’m convinced Steinmetz can do anything. I’m very excited for the next course he decides to work on.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.