If what you crave in your SF is a fresh and dynamic approach to world-building, wed to epic storytelling with believably flawed heroes and vividly imagined alien cultures, and you're frustrated that nobody seems to be bloody doing it, odds are you've been skipping over the Kay Kenyon novels every time you go to the bookstore. In Bright of the Sky, Kenyon's seventh outing, she makes her first foray into series fiction. Like her past work, it displays a wonderfully fecund imagination in its evocation of an alien world, in this case a manufactured alternate universe that operates under exotic physical laws. Kenyon's story, however, is not much more than the latest variant of Campbell's Hero's Journey. But the book has its share of moments where its full potential shines. And as there are three volumes yet to go, there's plenty of time for Kenyon to outdo herself — as I know she can.
The Entire is an artificial universe created by the Tarig, a curious humanoid race who have peopled their creation with engineered duplicates of species from natural universes like our own, which they call the Rose. The Entire itself beggars easy description. It is like a landscape of sorts that spans galactic distances and even possesses the radial shape of a spiral galaxy. It is bordered on its sides by roiling curtains of ineffable exotic matter, and above by a sky that never darkens. The Tarig rule their subject species like the despots they are. Only they possess the ability to communicate across the Entire's vast radial arms, the primacies. And they control the most important means of travel, achieved with vessels piloted by beings called navitars that journey a river, the Nigh, made of yet more exotic matter.
The Entire comes to the attention of Earth when a spacecraft piloted by Titus Quinn disappears into it by accident, cracking through the branes separating the two universes. Now back on Earth, a bitter, broken man, Quinn finds much of his memory of his experience there gone. He only knows his wife and daughter are still missing and captive in the Entire.
Quinn's employer, the Evil Corporation™ Minerva, never believed his story about the strange alien universe, thinking he simply went mad and disappeared to parts unknown before being found. But now they believe they have evidence of the Entire, and want Quinn to go back. If the Entire exists, and a way to go back and forth from it is found, it may provide a means of interstellar travel that is just as efficient but far safer than the unstable Kardashev tunnels that are currently in use, and which have an alarmingly high disaster rate. (It was into one of these tunnels Quinn's own ship vanished.)
Cutting to the chase here, naturally Quinn goes back (after initially angrily refusing, in classic Hero's Journey style). And once we're back with him, the book kicks into creative high gear as Kenyon parades a dazzling panoply of alien cultures, landscapes, and characters before us. The race closest to human are the chalin, whose culture is predominately Oriental. We're also introduced to the servile quadropeds, the hirrin; the devilish Gond; the silent, floating gasbags, the Adda, who actually serve as living blimps for air travel; and most compellingly, the equine, telepathic Inyx, who rule their own territory ("sway") with more apparent freedom than most of the races under the Tarig, and each of whom holds a special bond with their indentured chalin riders. It is among the Inyx that Quinn's lost daughter, Sydney, dwells. A child when she arrived in the Entire, she is now nearly an adult. Blinded by the Tarig before being handed over to the Inyx, she has grown accustomed to her new life, but still harbors a dream of one day avenging herself against the sinister ruling race.
Kenyon's plot has a lot to take in as she goes about establishing everything. There's just more happening than can easily be summarized in a review. It's consistently fascinating the way she develops the political conflicts and social stratum of the Entire, then begins weaving an intricate thriller involving a growing sense of rebellion lurking just underneath the surface of the Tarig's harshly regulated society, coupled with a growing alarm among the Tarig over the potential invasion of humans from the Rose. Numerous supporting characters, both heroic and villainous, cross the stage. Titus, naturally, remains at the center, his primary goal the rescue of his wife and daughter.
But this is where Bright of the Sky isn't as even as it should be. Titus himself isn't all that sympathetic a hero at first. We know next to nothing about his life before he and his family first came to the Entire. He's often a hard-headed prick. And much of the plot involves — well, the same thing you see in a lot of epic quest fantasies: loads and loads of traveling scenes. Quinn and his chalin companion, Anzi, the niece of a hilariously arch chalin potentate, spend most of the book making their way to the Tarig capital, the Ascendency, which floats in the air miles above the Entire's hub.
Where the book offers its strongest emotional investment is in Sydney's story. Quinn may be a cold fish, but Sydney snares your heart from the get-go, and she's heroic into the bargain. When we first meet her, she's little more than a blind slave, bullied by the other riders in her stable, and recording her experiences in a diary for which she's invented her own style of braille. She soon chooses to take control of her fate, attracting a more powerful Inyx mount and fighting for a more equal relationship between mounts and riders. It's all in the service of her vengeful ambitions, which also happen to serve interests of which she is currently unaware, though they are very aware of her. Sydney's story gives Bright of the Sky the bulk of its human depth. But one must admit, there is something a bit askew with a book whose main story thread is less compelling than one of its subplots.
Still, Kenyon's final chapters rock the house. Not only does Quinn finally experience his much needed character arc, but he makes a shocking discovery (and commits one or two shocking acts) that influence his priorities and the course of his mission. It's a satisfying ending in that we see a character, in a manner arguably at odds with the conventions of heroic fiction, realizing that there are bigger concerns out there than his own, and that the most painful choice you are often faced with is over what you are more or less willing to give up. The final chapters of Bright of the Sky bode well for an even better sequel, in what is likely to become one of the brightest SF series this decade.