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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Wistful Ascending my JCM Berne (Reviewed by Matthew Higgins)


Official Author Website

Buy Wistful Ascending here - U.S. | U.K.

OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO:  JCM Berne was a geek long before anyone thought it was cool. A youth spent immersed in E.E. Smith, Micronauts, Bruce Lee, and Conan the Barbarian led to a lifelong obsession with martial arts and shonen manga. As an adult he spent more time than was strictly healthy wondering why Luke Cage never learned kung fu from his partner and whether joint locks would work on the Hulk, occasionally taking a break to enjoy some Bollywood films. Java developer by day, by night he ponders the future and past of Rohan of Earth and associates.

FORMAT/INFO: Wistful Ascending is the first book in the Hybrid Helix series. It was published in September 2020 and is available in ebook, hardcover, and paperback formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: A fun slice of life superhero romp. Buzzing with energy and dad jokes, there was certainly a lot of chaos as Rohan's life was upended by space bears, assassins, and much more! Whilst some unexpected depth in the second act really pushes the boundaries and shows what could’ve been if things had been taken in a different direction, for the most part the book is happy to be a low stakes zany sci fi. Overall, I found it entertaining, if a little restrained in what it could’ve been.

Wistful Ascending is first and foremost the story of Tow Chief Second Class Rohan. Day in-day out Rohan flies out to the wilderness of space to tow in the ships arriving to land on the space station Wistful. It’s a good life, engaging enough, and yet nothing ever goes too much wrong.

But Rohan has a secret he wants to keep hidden. Rohan is a Hybrid, a former superhero from Earth with a complex past. All Rohan wants is to escape that life and live in peace. But space bears never mean peace… and it never ends with just space bears!

I think a lot of the entertainment of this book came from seeing what could go wrong next. We start with the space bears ( whom can be wonderfully charming I must admit), but before too long it grows to assassins, threats from the past, and much much more. Rohan has to pick up the pieces of his life as it descends into chaos, and I honestly was rooting for him quite a lot.

Rohan is a mostly well-rounded character, a very likeable personality, although I think comparisons to Star Lord are a little overblown. I would argue that Rohan is the dad joke version; Star Lord when he’s middle aged and a little world weary, but without some of the swagger.

In the beginning we are introduced to Rohan as a man with a bubbling temper that he tries to contain, however it isn’t until quite late on that we actually see this ,rather than just being told about it. Having to deal with the fallout of his later decisions was actually the best part of the book, a point where it felt like there was a level of gravitas that grounded things and helped mature the narrative.

Prior to this I will admit that I struggled to find my way through the book (not like you’re thinking!!!!!). I think this is because my expectations were set very differently to how I felt the tone was. I was expecting a marvel esque quippy superhero romp in a sci fi setting. What I found instead was a book that was mostly focused on the personal life of Rohan whilst mini episodic adventures occurred.

Whilst the humour grew on me as very endearing, at first I struggled because I was expecting a laugh out loud quippy serialised adventure. Once I got me head wrapped around that I did find myself rather invested in the story. Not particularly the threats that were being faced, but rather the colourful personal life of Rohan and all those in it.

From Wei Li the security chief, to the space bear Ursula, to Dr Stone, there was a veritable kaleidoscope of character within, and I feel that Berne did a wonderful job making them all attention-grabbing characters. There is a certain level of wit and banter between Rohan and themselves which did raise a few chuckles, particularly the blunt interactions between Wei Li and Rohan who have a semi tumultuous relationship.

The best relationships with Rohan in this book however are reserved for the alien Tamara and the sentient ship itself, Wistful. Rohan and Tamara meet in a rather natural manner and grow into a romantic relationship that I found sweet, but never saccharine. I’m not a big fan of romance in general, however I found it was done rather tastefully here, and I was genuinely rooting for their burgeoning desire.

I think it had me so invested because Berne has the details of daily life down so well. The crazy, bigger aspects of the narrative are perhaps a little extraneous when compared with the real centre of the story, which is just about the life of Rohan. His favourite coffee shops, his quest to find new clothes, his interactions with the citizens of Wistful. These more relatable experiences within the book were the aspects that worked the most for me throughout.

As mentioned before, Wistful is the other of the top two companions found within that really was quite a lot of fun. Considering Wistful is a sentient ship, they had a rather playful relationship, and I really enjoyed their interactions.

Wistful is also part of the key to the worldbuilding and several of the mysteries here. This is where I feel things started to let themselves down a little unfortunately. There was certainly an infinite amount of potential here with the past history of Earth, the Il Drach Empire, mysterious assassins, wormholes, you name it. When Berne leaned into this and gave us more information about the universe and the events spanning it, I really enjoyed it. I am a sucker for worldbuilding, even info dumps after all!

I found it a shame here that in the focus on the smaller narrative, the larger got a little lost within. The ending provided an interesting twist to resolve some of the mysteries, however it didn’t feel particularly earned because it never felt much foreshadowed.

I believe Berne was trying to replicate the feel of a comic book, where it’s very singularly focused for the most part, and fairly episodic. Berne did achieve that here, as we zip from one adventure to the next with slices of life in-between. However, I don’t think it particularly translates well to the written page. If it will be a slice of life book, I personally think it works better to keep it very low stakes, which for the most part Wistful Ascending did. However, it felt there was a little bit of a pull towards a bigger, more serialised tale that ended up muddying things a little. The growth didn’t feel particularly organic, as we would get little titbits thrown in at random, rather than a steady growth. The scale at the end also felt like it didn’t match the scale of a serialised tale, so it felt a little uncertain of what it wanted to be. If Berne had completely committed to either a fully slice of life, or fully serialised tale( which can still start off low stakes slice of life, it just needs consistent growth, direction, and rising tension) it would’ve been all the better for it.

Indeed, in the second act, this book really goes off for a hot minute, providing the depth I was hoping for, and definitely surprising me in just how far it went. I’d really commend Berne for taking things to unexpected depths, and in fact there was one storyline I was convinced would end in a cliched fashion, and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t. It shows the strength of Berne as an author to not conform to expectations ( I mean the space bears should’ve been a huge hint I guess!), and I think if Berne leans into that going forward, with a greater emphasis on the world and the larger stakes at play, it could really grow into something special.

CONCLUSION: I wasn’t as enamoured of this book as some others in the community. It took me a little while to adjust, and I think there were definitely some missed opportunities throughout, of which I have no doubt Berne will improve upon as he grows as an author. However, this book was just a lot of fun, I grew rather invested into the intersecting personal lives of the characters within, and it definitely raised a few smirks. The book ends in quite a self-contained space, but with enough hook to keep me invested for the next ones.

If you like zany energy, dad jokes, and superheroes, this is one for you!



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