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Thursday, January 6, 2022

Book review: Azura Ghost (The Graven #2) by Essa Hansen (reviewed by Adam Weller)



Book Links: Amazon, Goodreads
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Nophek Gloss

Author Info: Essa Hansen grew up in beautifully wild areas of California, from the coastal foothills to the Sierra Nevada mountains around Yosemite, before migrating north to the Canadian Rocky Mountains. She has ranched bison and sheep, trained horses, practiced Japanese swordsmanship and archery, and is a licensed falconer. She works for Skywalker Sound as a sound designer for science fiction and fantasy feature films such as Big Hero 6, Doctor Strange, Avengers: Endgame, and Pixar’s Onward. Essa lives with her British Shorthair cat Soki in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Publisher: Orbit Publication Date: February 1, 2022 Length: 480 Cover art: Design by Lauren Panepinto, Illustration by Mike Heath/Magnus Creative.



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He grazed the crystalline florescer over his head. The Azura’s universe bloomed. Light purled outward, space simmered, and effervescence settled in the wake. The vibrations quieted to a perfect chorus, ethereal and whisper-sleek.
“Ready, gorgeous?”
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There’s a painting on my wall of a wave crashing on a beach with seafoam frothing up and down the shoreline. ‘This is just like the multiverse in Azura Ghost,’ I kept thinking to myself while reading Essa Hansen’s sequel to Nophek Gloss. Countless bubbles of foam, each with its own distinct physical properties, with a thin layer of rind separating each tiny bubble from destruction or assimilation. In the multiverse analogy, these bubbles are universes, each with their own laws of physics, their own rules of mathematics. If one bubble universe pops and bleeds into the next: chaos, destruction, eventual adaptation. Quite a scary thought if you happen to be a resident! So if the ruling Dynast, Abriss Cetre, tries to unify the entire multiverse by destroying all the border rinds, there will certainly be genocidal consequences. But when attempting to resurrect lost Graven ancestors, one must crack a few eggs to make an omelette…

One of the many things I love about this series is how deep the characters are tied into its rich story. The characters are driven by multiverse-spanning goals that are humane and relatable. Abriss Cetre may be seeking to unify the multiverse and bring back the age of the Graven, but above all she is just looking to make a real human connection and escape her cursed power of never knowing if she can be spoken to as an equal. Threi Cetre is a man obsessed with playing second fiddle to his sister, the most powerful Graven alive, and will do anything he can to find a way to usurp her power while completing his own Graven tech research. Caiden wants to keep Threi’s powers neutered and his presence banished to a jailed universe, but doesn’t want anything to do with his own Graven roots, finding the manipulation abilities cursed, as Abriss does. He chooses to live the life as a fugitive to keep Threi jailed and sacrifices his relationship with his found family so they wouldn’t be hunted alongside him. Caiden’s limits his family to himself, his Very Good Boy pet nophek, and his mysterious Graven ship’s intelligence known as Azura.

In the first book, En, Lathan, Panca, Kisñe, and more of Caiden’s human and xenid friends shared in the spotlight. In the sequel, we’re introduced to a new cast of characters in the form of Proxies: sculpted humanoid bodyguards, designed by Dynast Abriss in the image of the Graven ancestors, each capable of harnessing the luminiferity in different ways. In the luminiferity, the spirits of the Graven are diffused instead of dead, so the consciousness of the Proxies can flow between the construct bodies and their original human/xenid bodies. Proxy Number Nine has a special ability to project her spirit through the luminiferity to visit other bodies outside her own, and it sets the stage for many thrilling battles across space and consciousness. Other Proxies have specialized fighting capabilities, and there are a couple of scenes of scalar gravity slugfest mayhem when Caiden and the Proxies cross paths.

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"Her sensitive nervous system fuzzed at the edges like the pages of the most-read books, velveted from a history of touch."
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Some of the major themes on Nophek Gloss remain front-and-center in Azura Ghost. Inclusivity and identity are once-again explored as the Proxies struggle to figure out their role in the universe, and if they can live independently outside of Abriss’ Graven influences. I loved reading about the struggles of these Proxies and their decision-making process when finally given freedom to act on their own, outside of blanketed emotional oppression. I also loved just how damn cool Hansen’s imagination is. Incredible ship battles, chase scenes that defy gravity with each new directional leap, and alien, environmental landscapes reminiscent of the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic. Even more impressive is that even though this book introduces many new and exciting characters, new philosophies, and new conflicts, I found this to be a much tighter, and more focussed read than book one. Much of the first half was build-up, and the entire back-half of the story was all fallout. It stole my breath and became an absolutely relentless page-turner by book’s end.

CONCLUSION: Azura Ghost somehow raises the bar from what Nophek Gloss brought to the table: a bizarre and thrilling tale of finding one’s true family, brimming with fresh imagination and originality. Hansen paints wondrous vistas from paragraph to paragraph and drives our emotions through the blender along the way. This is the type of story that lives as a movie inside your mind and continues to play when the book is done. The Graven is one of the most thoughtful and visionary science fiction epics I’ve ever read, and I give it my highest recommendation to fans of the genre.

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