Unpacking Truth in Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Anyone who has spent approximately five minutes with me knows how much I adore Lindsay Ellis’ work. Watching her grow from her early internet days to the video essay behemoth has been so inspirational to me. She continues to keep me on my toes, keep me thinking, while entertaining and so many artists, writers, and creators.

So, naturally, I was over the moon when I learned that Lindsay Ellis was releasing her debut novel in 2020. I had everyone at the bookstore keep an eye out for an advanced copy. When several of them went to Baltimore for a conference, I sent our book buyer a friendly reminder with a picture of the cover to make sure that if they saw it, they would get me an advanced copy. Of course, this created a lot of pressure when I finally had a copy in my hands: this was my most anticipated release of 2020. I know I naturally have a lot of bias and adoration for Ellis’ work, but this was a debut novel, not a video essay. I felt a sudden surge of anxiety when I opened the book.

I quickly realized how silly that anxiety was, because as soon as I read the first chapter, I knew this was going to be an absolute adventure, and by the end, Axiom’s End had completely exceeded my expectations.

Billed as Stranger Things meets Arrival, this first contact story is the most believable I have ever read. It is 2007, and a whistleblower named Nils Ortega has let the world know that the US Government has had first contact with an alien species for a very long time, and that they’ve kept it from the American people. They continue to deny this. Cora, our lead and the whistleblower’s daughter, becomes mixed up in this government conspiracy despite wanting nothing to do with her father. When one of the aliens comes into her life and deems her to be the only human he will communicate to and through… well, what is she meant to do? As Cora delves deeper into the conspiracy and begins to unravel the web her father cast light upon, she begins to grapple with the secrets kept from the American people to protect them. But are lies by omission actually worth it when truth is a human right?

First and foremost, there is no way Lindsay Ellis could have predicted when she wrote Axiom’s End how relatable her 2007 time capsule alien epic would be in 2020. The US government has brought up aliens and UFOs, there’s a pandemic, and everyone is demanding truth from those in power. Even more importantly, it examines the fine, fine line between omission of facts and outright lies. The parallels between Ellis’ alternate 2007 universe and our 2020 universe are striking, relevant, and powerful.

Some readers might find the immediate start jarring. After you try to make sense of a redacted document on page one, Ellis throws you right into the action with Cora, an unknown car following the Ortega family, and a second mysterious meteor crash. If that kind of thing puts you off, keep with it. Once you get your bearings, you are not going to put this book down. The twists and turns are fantastic. Every time I felt like I had a question about the world, the characters, the aliens, Ellis revealed new details that answered them. The story is so well constructed that it sometimes feels like this is actual research being presented as fact rather than a novel; Ellis is that convincing with her writing. The details are woven together so well that it’s hard to talk about the book without accidentally giving away spoilers! She also balances her sharp humor and wit with dark subjects like plague, genocide, and trauma without ever letting the book twist one way or another. As a reader, you never feel overwhelmed by the darkness, and the lightness never belittles the tougher concepts at hand. You also never feel talked down to, and a lot of that has to do with the lead, Cora.

I fully believed in Cora. I appreciate a lead who doesn’t have it all figured out, who constantly is in a fight with her stupid lizard brain, who acknowledges that she really is not the person who should be doing the things she is doing. I’m twenty eight years old, and Cora is so realistically flawed as a twenty something that sometimes it felt like I was being called out! Not enough books delve into what it’s like to be in your twenties – although we’re seeing an increase of this with the growth of New Adult fiction – so Cora was definitely a refreshing protagonist to read. The dynamic between her and the alien is great, and by the second half of the book, I had decided I would not be going to sleep until I had finished. I am so, so thrilled that the next book in the series had already been picked up – this is not a standalone like it was originally marketed! The next book is coming, so don’t worry. We’ll get even more.

All in all, Lindsay Ellis’ debut novel was a whole plate (I see what you did there!) of goodness that I immediately devoured. Sure, this is a first contact book, but it’s so much more than you could possibly expect, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Please get this surprisingly timely book about government UFO secrets, conspiracies, and a tiny bit of plague talk (is Lindsay Ellis psychic?) mixed with a 2007 backdrop that will surely make you want to listen to a “My Humps” playlist for the first time in years.

Axiom’s End is available from St Martin’s Press.

Cassie Schulz is the Events Assistant for Brazos Bookstore. You can find her on Twitter @kerfufflepuff where she tweets about books, musicals, and cats. You can also find her on Instagram, co-managing the page @tag.ur.lit with a fellow queer disaster who loves YA Lit as much as she does.

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