I don’t normally watch video essays on YouTube. It takes a very specific kind of personality to get me interested enough to watch anything on YouTube for more than 10 minutes – especially something that’s just analyzing something else. But Lindsay Ellis is one of those YouTubers who can get me to watch an hour-long video and enjoy it. So, when I heard about her debut novel, Axiom’s End, I was excited to give it a read. And I was even more excited about it when I heard it was a science fiction/alternate history novel about humanity’s first contact with an alien species. That kind of story is one of my favorite kinds of science fiction stories and I was eager to see what kind of a take Ellis would have on it. Having now read the book, I can say that it wasn’t really what I expected at all. Ellis certainly puts her own spin on the first-contact genre, weaving a pretty interesting tale and delivering a book that, while a bit difficult to initially get into, makes for a compelling and enjoyable read. (4 out of 5 wands)
(Note: I received an ARC of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own and have not been influenced. Additionally, mild spoilers may follow.)
Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis
It’s fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the US government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblower father. Even though Cora hasn’t spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the Internet, the paparazzi, and the government―and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father’s leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him―until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up, and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.
Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can, and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence has been completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human―and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.
First things first: I found this book difficult to get into, but once I got into it, I was really into it. Allow me to explain. From page one, we’re thrown headfirst into the story, with no time to get our bearings. The novel begins on the day California experiences a second strange meteor crash within the same month. There’s no easing into the story; the plot is already in motion and we’re left to just try and keep up with it. There’s no time to properly adjust to what’s going on or what anyone’s relationship with each other is because things just have to keep going. It’s like watching a TV series but skipping the pilot. You can mostly follow what’s going on, but you never quite shake the feeling of having missed something vitally important. And all of this is surrounded by some prose that initially feels very clunky. Though, more on that shortly.
So, as the book opens, everybody is already on edge and we don’t understand why until a little later. In those opening pages, we also learn a lot about Cora, our protagonist, and her relationship with Nils, her Edward Snowden/Julian Assange-esque father who has just made some kind of bombshell announcement that Cora has no interest in learning about (though Nils ends up factoring into the story a lot less than you’d expect). Then, the meteor crashes and all hell breaks loose as we’re very quickly introduced to more strands of the conspiracy that will stretch across the entire novel. Something breaks into Cora’s house, terrifying her family. Government agents arrive and take her family into custody. Cora goes on the run. Cora starts to learn about the plot, only to suddenly end up somewhere else, having been kidnapped by something potentially extraterrestrial. Etc., etc. It’s just… a lot that all happens incredibly quickly and it was often very difficult to follow. I felt like I needed an encyclopedia to understand what was going on and why. There was almost too much going on, to the point that it was a bit numbing. At times, it was like reading the Wikipedia summary of the novel instead of actually reading the story. It wasn’t a very good experience and I was worried I was going to dislike the book.
Thankfully, this feeling didn’t last too long. The first third of the novel takes us very quickly from Cora being extremely skeptical about aliens to Cora literally meeting an alien (named Ampersand), getting abducted by Ampersand, and agreeing to be Ampersand’s translator as he goes about fulfilling his mission (which I won’t spoil). And it’s here where the book finally starts getting interesting, partially because it’s the time when it finally slows down to start explaining what’s been happening up to that point. From here on out, the plot is very interesting and it’s delivered in easier-to-follow batches. I don’t want to go into any detail about it because it’s well worth experiencing as spoiler-free as possible, but once it finally gets going, it moves at a satisfying pace – fast enough that you never get bored but slow enough that you’re able to follow it. There are times where I wished the novel would slow down a bit so that a particular theme or idea could be explored more fully, but I’d suspect some of that exploration is being saved for a future novel in this series.
Overall, the story is intricately plotted and thought out – which is both a positive and a negative. The world-building is excellent; it’s set in 2007 and you can feel it almost immediately. There are references to Bush, the impending financial disaster of 2008, and tons and tons of mid-2000s pop culture. It’s all very believable and it’s an interesting time to set a story like this. The world-building seems to exist mainly to set up ideas for future books, but it didn’t bother me much because the world that Ellis has created is one that I’d want to spend more time in. The details she shares here are important to this story but not so important that they need to dwarf everything else. It’s just background, contextual information that enhances our understanding of everything that’s going on. And it’s great. But sometimes the details of everything are a little too intricate and it becomes difficult to follow all of the strands again. This doesn’t happen very often, though, and Ellis is pretty quick to explain something, so it’s more or less fine. On the whole, Axiom’s End is a well-written and well-executed story that excited me, held my attention, and left me wanting more.
Ellis does a great job of avoiding the usual pitfalls of a first-contact story. The story isn’t really about how all of humanity reacts to an alien presence; it’s more about how Cora and Ampersand react to each other. Their story is what forms the heart of the novel and it’s a delight to track it. They’re both interesting characters with intriguing backgrounds, but unfortunately, both characters don’t quite get equal development. In all honesty, Cora is one of those characters who are difficult to like. Her trauma defines her, and it’s led her to be closed off and standoffish to people. This kind of character is not always very fun to spend an entire novel with, and Cora isn’t a particularly sympathetic narrator at first. To be fair, Cora’s unlikability is sort of the point. Ellis uses Cora’s trauma as a contrast with Ampersand’s, comparing and contrasting their experiences, and the scenes where the two of them discuss their pasts and how they’re feeling about their presents tend to be among the best scenes of the novel. But it doesn’t really change the fact that it’s hard to connect with Cora until she meets Ampersand.
However, after that fateful meeting, Ampersand kind of steals all the attention away from Cora as he’s significantly more interesting just by being a fish-out-of-water alien. But still, the connection the two of them share is easily the most interesting aspect of the novel – and it’s clearly the stuff that Ellis most wanted to explore. The two of them push each other into some emotional places as they probe at each other’s respective trauma and grow closer and it’s so juicy to read. There’s a hint of Beauty and the Beast to their relationship – though probably not in the way you’d expect. On the whole, their storyline is immensely interesting and the way Ellis uses them to explore the ideas of trauma and morality is particularly enjoyable. Like I said, Axiom’s End is less about how society reacts to aliens but more how one specific human reacts to one specific alien, and how their shared experience influences their worldviews. And in that context, it’s a great story.
Axiom’s End is definitely a debut novel; it is both Lindsay Ellis’s first published novel and also the first novel in a series of books involving Cora and Ampersand. Firstly, it reads like a debut novel in a few different ways. As I previously mentioned, the novel’s prose is a bit rough at first. It often ranges between way too descriptive and not descriptive enough, frequently spending a lot of time describing things that don’t seem to matter much in the long run while under-describing things that seem more important. And some of the word choices often feel as if Ellis is stretching to use different synonyms to avoid being repetitive instead of just describing what she’s trying to describe more succinctly. Now, to be fair, there’s nothing technically wrong with the prose; there are no glaring grammar errors or anything like that. My problems with the prose are probably more subjective and the result of my own preferences rather than something that’s actually a problem. I personally don’t enjoy overly descriptive prose and I tend to prefer more straightforward descriptions of things. But your mileage may vary there. I’m sure most won’t find anything noteworthy about her prose. But for me, it was a bit clunky for a while – though I did eventually get used to it and found myself able to just go with what she was doing.
Secondly, Axiom’s End is clearly the first part of a series of novels. While the main conflict is technically wrapped up by the book’s end, the novel closes on a pretty big cliffhanger. I’d liken it to the feeling you get when you watch a season finale of a TV show: the season’s main plotline is wrapped up, but the episode ends with the beginnings of the plotline that will form the narrative thrust of the show’s subsequent season. That’s exactly what happens with Axiom’s End. And, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with that – as long as you know going into the book that you’re not getting the entire story. Lindsay Ellis has been very forthright about this on her Twitter, trying to make sure that readers know they’re reading the first part of a series, but the book’s actual promotional material doesn’t mention anything about the book being the first in a series, and I suspect that readers who aren’t expecting a cliffhanger might be disappointed when they find one. So, here’s your warning: this book ends on a cliffhanger. It’s a damn good one, too, and it’s left me eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. But, had I gone into this not knowing it was the beginning of a series, I’d have probably been annoyed by the cliffhanger. So, just be aware of that and know that a sequel has already been confirmed and is currently expected to come out next year.
All in all, Axiom’s End is a pretty solid debut from Lindsay Ellis. While the first third of the novel is a bit dense and hard to get into, once the story gets moving it’s very easy to get enveloped in all that’s going on with Cora and Ampersand. It’s a unique take on a first-contact story, focusing on the micro implications of a human and alien making contact rather than on the macro implications. Ellis brings a passion to the material; she clearly has something to say about humanity and how we interact with other species, and she does a great job of articulating this. Ellis does an equally impressive job of setting up an entire world here, teasing us with little references to all that’s going on outside of Cora and Ampersand’s story and leaving us wanting to explore more of this world. In much the same way, the book ends on a cliffhanger that deftly propels us into the next chapter of the story – which has, thankfully, already been announced for a 2021 publication. At the end of the day, Axiom’s End is one of those books that takes a bit of time to get going, but once it does, you’ll be extremely happy you read it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m excited to see where Lindsay Ellis takes the story in future novels.
4 out of 5 wands.