Even if you’re not into military sci-fi, don’t make the mistake of overlooking STORMBLOOD, an epic debut novel from Jeremy Szal. Perhaps more accurately described as a sci-fi mystery/thriller, this is an incredibly well thought out, multi-faceted sci-fi story. It’s written with emotional intelligence that can be lacking in the genre. Since I started reviewing ARCs a few months ago, it’s the first book I’ve come across this year that I can’t wait to re-read!
STORMBLOOD is set two years after the brutal war between Harmony and Harvest came to a violent end. Harmony, the galaxy’s military organisation, gained the upper hand when they created Reapers, stormtech super soldiers developed with hasty bioengineering and DNA from an extinct alien species. Reapers possess a dark passenger that integrates fully with their physiology, giving them enhanced abilities in response to the aggression and threat associated with battle. While stormtech won Harmony the war, it left Reapers emotionally and physically broken – addicts withdrawing from adrenaline and craving violence.
“We’ve all seen the alien monstrosity fused forever into our bodies for what is really is. The stormtech gives us wings, but takes the sky away.”
Fukasawa is one of the lucky ones, an ex-Reaper who made it through rehab and established a life for himself on the asteroid nation of Compass. But stormtech has made its way into the illegal drug market, and now ex-Reapers are turning up dead after using stock that has been tampered with. When his brother is implicated in these deaths, a reluctant Fukasawa agrees to help Harmony one last time in order to uncover the truth.
“We survived because we trusted each other with our lives, through every bloody step of the screaming, unflinching darkness of the Reaper War.”
STORMBLOOD is incredibly hard-hitting, and Szal pulls out all the stops but none of the punches. The story takes place after a war and focuses on how it has affected Fukasawa and his family. Brotherhood, both familial and found, is a central theme in the book, and it pulls ALL the heartstrings. Szal also addresses other issues like addiction, mental health and radicalisation, with each explored in a mature, powerful way.
There is a lot of violence in this book that it is often harrowing and at times uncomfortable rather than glorified. It’s impossible not to be moved by the atrocities of the Reaper war and the consequences of Harmony’s actions. Fukasawa’s flashbacks to the battlefield also provide gradual insight into his struggle to maintain relationships while clinging on to his humanity.
Being one of the more intense books I’ve read, there are also memorable moments of humour and friendship, and Szal’s worldbuilding is both fascinating and unique. The setting of Compass is up there with Bas Lag and the Tower of Babel as a favourite fantasy/sci-fi location. It’s a massive asteroid containing tiers of large cities and microenvironments like a vast, cosmic layer cake (for the sake of the simile it’s a very ugly layer cake).
Szal also describes a fascinating ethnic evolution. Intersystem colonisation has isolated and mixed nationalities, birthing new cultures over time.
He writes with a visual language that hints at inspiration from cinema and gaming. In Compass, people stomp around in space armour of varying shapes and colours, and the story develops in various locations, almost like levels in a game. As someone obsessed with Halo growing up, the one scene where Fukasawa goes shopping for new armour was just as magical as Harry’s first visit to Ollivander’s. I feel like Szal has brought to life my favourite Xbox adventures in a fun, shockingly human and meaningful way.
STORMBLOOD covers a surprising amount of thematic ground. Still, it together well, something that is emphasised when the meaning behind the book title becomes apparent. I’d consider it a must-read for any sci-fi lover, or any reader looking to be punched in the gut with words. Fans of John Scalzi will be thrilled to know they can find their new favourite author just a little to the right on the shelf.
Thank you to Gollancz and Netgalley for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review, and congratulations to Jeremy Szal for an epic debut novel!
STORMBLOOD was published on 4th June and is available in eBook, hardcover, paperback and audiobook formats
Trigger warning: Domestic violence