The genre: Sci-fi
The gist: First contact novel set in an alternate 2007. An American girl serves as an alien species’ sole interpreter for planet Earth.
The background: I wanted to read this book because I’ve been a fan of author Lindsay Ellis’ insightful and funny Youtube video essays for years (I’ve even featured some of her work for PBS on this blog). With a graduate degree in film, and as an observer of media and pop culture, she has a keen understanding of storytelling tropes and techniques, and I was excited when she announced she was putting out her first novel—a series, in fact, with book #2 coming out in fall 2021.
Axiom’s End was officially released July 21, 2020, but with the pandemic going on, I guess bookstores said “fuck it” and I wound up getting my hands on a copy the day before.
The tea: There were things I really liked about this book, and there were things that I wanted it to do better.
The dynamic between the protagonist Cora and the main alien Ampersand was nice, but I don’t know how earned it was; the trust just seemed to be there despite their different backgrounds, and it felt like they got too close too fast. The descriptions of aliens and the worldbuilding around their civilizations were well-thought-out. I really enjoyed the philosophical discussions the characters (human and alien) had about culture, life, and language. The dialogue read as realistic to me (one of Ellis’ MFA focuses was screenwriting) and the pace was good. Especially at about halfway through, I couldn’t put it down.
Also, the cover art is sick.
As for what I wanted more of, I wish the writing had made me feel a stronger connection to the characters or concerned about what happened to them. I didn’t really feel the tension of what was at stake for Cora and her family, only between Cora and Ampersand. There were also some minor inconsistencies that threw me, which I’ll chalk up to editorial oversight.
Finally, it’s mentioned early on in the novel that Cora studied linguistics, and I was a little let down this didn’t come into play in a significant way when she became an alien interpreter; maybe it will in the books to come.
The wrap-up: I went into this knowing that long-form sci-fi without dystopia isn’t totally my thing, and I still found it an enjoyable read, if a little disappointing. The subject matter is interesting, and Ellis’ exploration of the theme of embracing “the other” is a fresh take and kind of heartwarming.
The rating: ⭐⭐.5 / 5
There it was. Not everything could be explained, at least not with the limits of spoken language. But there was something comforting to it. Their mutual inability to understand each other leading to a place of understanding.—Lindsay Ellis, Axiom’s End