Saturday, June 25, 2022

"Aestus Book 1: The City" by S.Z. Attwell--Fiction Review

Today, Obscurists, we’re traveling to the city—in S.Z. Attwell’s “Aestus Book 1: The City.” It’s a post-apocalyptic story where the status quo isn’t what it seems, and it underlines that in nearly every conflict, there are heroes and villains on all sides.

S.Z. Attwell

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

That ending! A lot goes down quickly, and it was like getting a jolt. The energy and tension suddenly crescendo at the end of the plot, and it’s been in my head since I finished reading “Aestus: Book 1: The City.” I’m of more than one mind about the end, but I’ll get into more later. Overall, I’d say I loved it.

I’ve brought this up in a prior review, but I like my post-apocalypse(s), in fiction, unexplained, hinted at, but never spelled out. This book pulls that effect off well. The end of the world probably came about because of runaway global warming, but the exact causes, timeframes, et cetera are left up to the reader’s imagination. The world is this way now, and the characters that inhabit that world don’t ever digress or pine for a long-lost world. They’re too busy surviving. No one has time to break into a soliloquy about the folly of humankind and bemoan the paradise lost.

Even though there were many of them, I enjoyed the characters in this novel. Attwell pulls off so many characters so well because there is clearly a defined core group and major and minor characters supporting that group’s story. This is partly achieved because “Aestus: Book 1: The City” is a long book.

What I don’t love about this book:

To reiterate from above. It is a really long book. And sure, there were a lot of characters to flesh out and give them their moment in the sun, but it also felt like every scene was at least twice as long as it should have been.

Also, I hated the uncle character from the jump. Nobody says “my dear” that much and isn’t awful. I don’t care—you get four or five “my dear(s),” and then you’re officially a wackadoo—yes, that’s the clinical term for it.

I like Jossey, our protagonist in this story. She’s intelligent, resourceful, and not afraid to take action. But she has some Katniss Everdeen levels of obliviousness when it comes to anyone—literally anyone—showing even a modicum of romantic interest in her. I get it’s an intentional character flaw that rounds the character and makes her seem more like a real person to give her this insecurity, but from a taste perspective, it’s an eye roller for me.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

We’re introduced to our protagonist, Jossey, through a childhood memory—not a good one. It was the day she was attacked when visiting the surface to see the moon. Her brother also disappeared during the attack.

Years later, Jossey is an engineer whose work often takes her to the surface to work on the above-ground solar plant that provides power to the city, Jossey’s city, maybe one of the last cities on Earth. The heat outside during the day is terrible, so the city’s inhabitants live underground.

On their way back, Jossey’s solar crew are attacked in the upper tunnels by what they call an Onlar, which appears to be some sort of frightening monster with claws. Jossey manages to kill it but is injured in the process. The solar crew is stranded out of the city and told to wait until morning, a clear death sentence, especially for the wounded Jossey. Her group, however, is saved by a childhood friend of hers, Tskoulis, a famous commander in the city’s patrol, nicknamed “the Tiger.” 

Jossey finds herself in the hospital again and is confined there for a long time. During her stay, her crew visits her, including Caspar, one of the other engineers on her team. They keep her spirits up with books, often poorly written novels, and also Tskoulis visits.

One day though, when on patrol on the surface at night, Tskoulis’s team finds the skeletal remains of a young boy, thought to be Tark, Jossey’s brother. Tskoulis reluctantly tells Jossey, which is devastating news to her, even all these years later, as she blamed herself for what happened. This news also influenced her decision to join patrol when her uncle, a city minister, offered her the position. Jossey wants nothing more than to get revenge on the Onlar for her brother’s sake and the injuries she sustained.

During her time on patrol, Jossey learns what had apparently been a forbidden secret of the Onlar—they aren’t monsters, but people in specially designed suits. People who evidently live outside of the city. During a special project handed down by Jossey’s uncle, the minister, to expand the city’s power generation, Jossey is captured by the Onlar.

Once among them, Jossey discovers her brother Tark isn’t dead. He’d been raised by the Onlar all these years. Now, since the passing of his father-in-law, he has risen to become the leader of the Onlar. Tark and his adoptive people are in conflict with the city because the city, or the colony, as the Onlar call it, came to their lands, claimed their resources, and shut the Onlar out of their city. To rub salt into the wound, the city also has an extremely nasty—but a secret from most of the city’s citizens—policy of using Onlar and Onlar children as slave labor whenever convenient to grow food for the city.  

Jossey agrees to turn double agent and help Tark and his people, realizing her special project that her uncle gave her poses a significant threat to the Onlar’s existence. She “escapes” back to the city with hopes of eventually convincing Tskoulis, her brother’s childhood friend, at some point. Once back in the city, though, her uncle keeps her very close, isolating her from the rest of patrol. It’s even revealed to her now that her friend Caspar, one of her fellow engineers to join patrol, is and always was a deadly trained secret agent reporting directly to her uncle. 

Then in an unfortunate twist of events, Jossey’s cover is blown, and her uncle orders Caspar to execute her, and he seemingly complies with the order. But not before Jossey had time to reveal the truth of the Onlar, her brother, and the city to Tskoulis.

The distraught Tskoulis, who, after learning about Jossey’s fate, confronts Caspar. Caspar, however, reveals that he, like Tskoulis, has been in love with Jossey for a while now. He only made it seem like he had executed her—he hopes—he did stab her, but in a non-vital location and with a blade coated in a compound that simulates death. Caspar tells Tskoulis that he wants him to go after Jossey. Caspar himself has to continue his role, seemingly serving the minister while actually being the leader of the resistance faction against him.


To return to a point from my loves about this book and books within this sub-genre—I like post-apocalyptic stories that aren’t focused on the apocalyptic event itself. The best examples acknowledge that collective pain and trauma—doesn’t belittle it in any way—but remain primarily focused on subsequent events and the future. What I’ve said before about these books is I think there is a great misconception about them; they aren’t about hopelessness at all. They’re about hope, even after great tragedy.

This leads me to the ending. On the one hand, I considered how powerful the draw into the next story would have been if this story cut out right at the moment when Tskoulis confronts Caspar about Jossey’s apparent execution.

But on the other, even though that would end the novel with maximum tension and maximum push to dive into the second book, it would detract from the theme of hope. So I’m not sure if I would prefer it or not.

Parting thoughts:

This book made me think a lot about the theme of devastatingly extreme environmental collapse and how that would exacerbate our current societal problem of the massive disconnect between the haves and the have-nots. 

I’ve talked about both before, but Attwell succinctly joins the two issues through fiction. For generations now, we’ve lived with the idea that things will be improved for the next generation and presumed that would always be the case.

In my opinion, we find ourselves today at a crossroads—possibly the most momentous one we’ve ever collectively faced as a species. We could leverage our greatest asset, the ability to cooperate with each other, to ensure that things do continue to improve, generation after generation.


We can continue down the path of division, in-groups, and out-groups. Strife will follow, the world will get hotter, and lives will be shorter and meaner.

Finally, spare a thought about our billionaire class; they like to present themselves as these benevolent and smiling demigods of our society. They “create” jobs—as they tell it—rather than benefit inordinately and grossly disproportionately off other people’s labors. And they’re worshiped for it by those driven by the same sad impulse to abase themselves to their “masters” as some slaves of old did.

How charitable do you believe these Olympians will be when the fields wither, the oceans rise, and super storms become a fact of life? How many times in history have people with absolute power genuinely expended that power in a way that made peasants’ lives better? Why will it be any different this time?

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