REVIEW: The Space Between Worlds – Micaiah Johnson

9781529387148-scaled

Author: Micaiah Johnson (twitter)

UK Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Genre: Science fiction

Reasons Cara has died:

– The emperor of the wasteland wanted to make an example of her mother and started with her
– One of her mother’s boyfriends wanted to cover up what he did to her
– She was born addicted and her lungs didn’t develop
– She was left alone, and a stranger came along
– The runners came for a neighbour and she was in the way
– The runners came for her mother and she was in the way
– The runners came for her boyfriend and she was in the way
– The runners came for no one, serving nothing but chaos and fear, and she was what they found
– Her mother left her alone in a shed while she worked or got high and she fell asleep alone and hungry and forever

Reasons Cara has lived:

– She doesn’t know, but there are 8.

The multiverse business is booming, but there’s just one catch: no one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive.

Enter Cara. Of the 382 realities that have been unlocked, Cara is dead in all but eight

But on this earth, she survived. Born in the wastelands where if a basic lack of resources didn’t kill you, violence would, Cara is happy to reap the benefits of a job and a safe place in the city to call home.

But when one of her eight remaining doppelgangers dies under mysterious circumstances, Cara is plunged into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and future in ways she never could have imagined – and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

I feel like this book was the perfect book to read after Seven Devils. It has a similar anger, a similar feel of a small power against an insurmountable obstacle. It also shares the feel of Mad Max: Fury Road, set on an Earth after capitalism has destroyed the environment, sapped the planet of its resources, and split society between the wealthy who live in sheltered cities, and the poor who live in sun-bleached deserts ruled by bloodthirsty and capricious warlords.

I’ve always loved the idea of multiverses, of the way things could have gone differently and how that could impact the direction of life in any number of ways. The premise here is that each Earth from the central one – Earth Zero – is incrementally more different. Each changed at a different point or in a different way, but all are fundamentally the same. The same environmental issues, the same power balances, the same people. But whether the people lived or died, their relationships, their life paths – those are almost entirely dictated by luck, and chance.

Cara is a very compelling narrator, one who is constantly struggling to find her place in the world. The knowledge that she has survived when so many other versions of her have died makes her question why she’s different. She carries the knowledge of the dead inside of her, and feels their lives even as she struggled through hers. A chance encounter on a new world reveals secrets that had been hidden on Earth Zero, and helps her to begin to define herself and make herself the person she wants to be, while facing the preconceptions she had about the world and society around her.

I loved the whole tone and and nuance of this. The theme of unforgiving heat certainly felt apt for the days I read it, where we’ve reached new all-time temperature highs in the UK. But there was this wonderful rawness to the description, and you could feel Cara’s emotions deeply in every scene. Her discomfort, her anger, her resolution were all so clear in the text. It’s a very evocative book and I really enjoyed the layers to each section of the book. The fact that at the beginning there’s a clear split between Wiley City and Ashtown, the rich and the poor – and then the religious, the gangs, the victims – is so stark and makes the book seem very clear cut, but as it continues these definitions are muddied and the lines blur. Are the gangs just violent aggressors? Is the current Emperor the worst they could possibly have? Would things have been better had the Emperor’s older, more peaceable brother lived? The book starts with these preconceptions and distinctions, but uses the premise of the alternate worlds to show us that there are facets to every person, and perhaps we might not have seen all of them in the current circumstances, but that doesn’t meant they don’t exist.

I thought the sowing of seeds for later in the story was masterfully done as well, blending important plot points seamlessly with world building so that nothing stood out as obvious on first glance, but slotted neatly into place when it was reintroduced later. It felt the same with aspects of Cara’s personality too, as she is trying to shape herself to fit a picture that isn’t quite her, and she reveals aspects of herself that she’s trying to squash down or cut away so she can fit in. Her strength comes when she accepts herself and who she is in the context of all the different versions of herself she has encountered.

There were lots of little things in it which I felt really made it. The idea of living segregated across different floors in this enclosed city based on wealth and status; the fact that different areas had different diets – the rural religious community ate mostly vegetables and fruits that could easily be grown and stacked, while Ashtown ate meets and root vegetables, and in the city fruits like apples and peaches were grown for decoration because they had the space and the artificial climate.

As I neared the end of the book, I worried it wouldn’t be resolved in time, as I couldn’t see how it would comfortably be stretched into a sequel. I needn’t have – it was deftly tied up and the ending was perfectly satisfying without being overworked. Everything was resolved, and at the end of it I felt like I’d finished something wonderful. This was another reason it was a good follow-up to Seven Devils, where the ending was just the middle of the whole story and nothing could be fully resolved! It was a relief to read something complete.

I will definitely be looking for more work from this author in future!

Briefly:

  • A high-concept multiverse political thriller almost, with a post-apocalyptic setting and a plot that doesn’t make itself obvious early on but that is still outstandingly compelling.
  • Cara is a fantastic character, and an openly bisexual black woman. Her relationships and race are woven into the story as she looks at where she comes from and where she belongs now, and it’s really quite tenderly done.
  • Some trigger warnings should be noted for domestic abuse, drug addiction, and some body horror. The reason you can’t visit another world if you’re still alive on it is pretty brutal.

Rating: 5/5 – This was something really special, and for all its violence, darkness and brutality, there was a warmth and hope that threaded throughout and blossomed at the end. No-one is one thing, and there is no one life for anyone. It’s inspiring.

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