First released as singular ‘episodes’, Zachary Bonelli’s debut, Voyage Embarkation is the first volume in what is hopefully going to be an extensive collection of world hopping science fiction adventures. I have come to love a good sci-fi book, but they do have to have interesting concepts and thought provoking characters for it catch my attention. When I was given the chance to read and review this first volume before its release, I instantly agreed. Its blurb caught my attention with its mention of travelling from world to world, from discovering the beautiful natural wonders that may exist to social decay of others.
We begin with Kal, the teenage protagonist, who has lived in exile upon a foreign world that is populated by giant cats. With nanotechnology commonly used upon Earth, Kal has found that he is extremely allergic to the collective radiation that is produced as a result, putting him in a coma. But through his expertise in computer programming, Kal has found a way to enter the metaxia – ‘an unspace between universes’ as the author explains. With this, he begins his journey, exploring foreign cultures, ever in hope of discovering a cure to his allergy so he can once again return home to where he belongs. Voyage Embarkation is the first chronicle of sorts in Kal’s adventures, and believe me, it is so captivating and wonderous to read.
From tropical jungles where people live in tree baubles, to clay people worshiping a not so benevolent deity; from totalitarian fascist run states where coups are hiding away, to a re-imagining of Norse mythology, this novel crosses the boundaries of science fiction and fantasy culminating in a fast-paced, thoroughly enjoyable thrill ride. The author has such an inventive and creative imagination, and describes each world in such vivid detail, you can really get a taste of what life is like for its inhabitants.
What is also so interesting about these alternate realities, is how rich in detail they are in regards to social and political elements. Some are more cultural based where others have a political hierarchy that must be adhered to at all costs. Zachary Bonelli is one clever man, as he manages to show extreme opposites in rather close proximity to one another, which as a reader gives us an insight into what our world may become. It never comes across as preachy, but rather informative, factual and although Kal may disagree with some of the worlds’ habits, Bonelli never forces morals and rights and wrongs onto you, instead cleverly getting you to ask your own questions. There are some complex issues discussed within, so this may not be a light read, but it does pull you in.
I think what really makes this book is Kal. He is such an endearing main character, one with strong morals; constantly always trying to do the right thing at heart, but sometimes actually messes up. He has such a strong voice, but also the vulnerability to evoke emotion. He’s just a lad who wants to return home, but knows he actually can’t. At times you really feel for the guy. What Bonelli does extremely well with kal, is the subtle development as the book progresses. They aren’t noticeable at first, but as Kal realises his previous mistakes, he starts to amend his behaviour, taking other characters’ feelings into account before he acts. At first, he’s quite a naive young man, thinking that he has the technology and expertise to help the societies he visits – make them better. But over the course of the book, he begins to realise that he isn’t a god, he can’t solve all the problems that face him, and sometimes the connections he makes along the way have to be severed for him to move on.
What is a real gem though, is the character of Tria, Kal’s holographic brother of sorts, the one person who sticks with him along his journey. I found Tria’s witty remarks and brilliant insights really engaging. Especially as we see Kal and Tria’s attachment and relationship grow into something really meaningful with strong foundations. It is hard to imagine the book without Tria actually. I think he is the secret cog in the background that holds everything together – and it also adds an extra level to the novel. The story arc of searching the realms for a way to create Tria a real body is also motivation enough to read.
Voyage Embarkation is the first novel I’ve read that features it central character being gay. It isn’t something you pick up on at first, but the little clues dotted among the pages do make you think. I do think this is a great part to the story, and why shouldn’t great book have gay protagonists? Zachary Bonelli writes with such conviction and confidence in kal, that only adds to his endearment. It isn’t until the chapter (book) ‘Taboo’ where we really get to see Kal’s sexual orientation come to the fore, with most of that story as kal as the unfortunate victim of hate because of his preferences. I really do think that Bonelli found the right balance of emotion in that chapter, because it would have been too easy to trail of the path as such. The chapter shocks you into shouting at Kal to leave that world. Kal’s vulnerability really does become apparent in that chapter.
I did find the technical sides of this book a little confusing at times, which sort of made things a little slow for me in the beginning. For someone who reads predominately science fiction, I doubt this would be a problem. From nanotechnology, to radiation, to programming, to computer displays and other semantic terms, I think it sometimes shows that Bonelli may have forgotten to clarify some areas, as he is probably so atuned to them already. It certainly doesn’t hinder the novel, and when you do start to pick them up, you can really get into the story more.
Another slightly disadvantage the book has is, well the concept of world hopping really. Trust me, it is an original idea and presented extremely well, but you can’t deny that the forever move to one world to another doesn’t really give you a chance to get your teeth into some of the other characters. This is because as you move on to another world, you are introduced all over again to new characters, never returning to characters you met earlier on. There are some great side characters in here – I certainly hope we get to see some of them again.
Voyage Embarkation is a great sci-fi read, one that touches upon so many bases. It is clever, rich in detail and extremely well written; plus with some great conceptual illustrations inside too. Yes the technical terms can be a little confusing at times, but once you really get behind Kal, you begin to open your eyes that little bit wider and spur him on, enjoying his exploration along with him. Tria is a fab character, one I’m keen to read more about. If world hopping, multi-layered levels of political and cultural symbolism science fiction is your thing, then this will definitely grab your attention. I probably wouldn’t describe it as young adult, more new adult (NA) with its sometimes deep messages and complicated questioning, but that’s a great thing. Zachary Bonelli’s debut is full of exceptional imagination that is only affirmed by his rare, fresh voice. Surely, he is the new face of conceptual science fiction?
Voyage Embarkation is released by Fuzzy Hedgehog Press at the end of December 2013
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