While aspiring authors are often told to “write the book you want to read”, booklovers are constantly on a mission to read the book they want to read. We search for those memorable stories that feel deeply personal and stay in our thoughts for years. For me, The House of Styx is one of those stories.
There are no spaceships, battles scenes or interstellar journeys in this first instalment of Derek Künksen’s Venus Ascendant duology. Rather, it is an intimate tale of family, identity and belonging, set in the richly symbolic and sulphuric clouds of Venus.
Occurring 250 years before the events of The Quantum Magician, the book shows the creation of the Venusian Congregate but can be read as standalone work.
“Forty-eight kilometres of dark, poisonous, baking atmosphere beneath them. Thirty kilometres of bright, poisonous, cooling atmosphere above them. Nothing around them but clouds and haze.”
The House of Styx is told from the perspective of the D’Aquillon family, Québécois colinistes who inhabit the Venusian skies, real estate long ago dismissed as too hostile by other Earthen territories.
Patriarch George-Étienne has led the D’Aquillons to the lowest levels of Venus’ acid clouds, far from the reach of the government and the bank that controls it. There they work their trawlers, giant floating plants that allow them to collect minerals and resources from the atmosphere and live out a modest life.
While his daughter Marthe represents the D’Aquillons far above in l’Assemblée and his estranged son Émile seeks out new kin in fellow artists, George-Étienne risks his remaining family to travel to the planet surface and investigate a wind that shouldn’t exist. When they realise this discovery might help the family’s future, the D’Aquillons fight to keep it a secret.
The House of Styx is contemporary science fiction writing at its absolute finest, with Künsken striking a perfect balance with his characters, politics and world-building.
I’ve always thought of sci-fi set in the Solar System as a pulpy throwback to the Golden Age of science fiction, perhaps thinking a future with life on our planets too unlikely given what we know about them. But Künsken has created a believable and detailed account of what society in the forbidding clouds of Venus would look like. The book is well-researched and all the more impressive for the fact that Künsken has had to play within known scientific boundaries, something easily avoided by writing about other systems or galaxies.
While the book is rich in detail, it isn’t weighed down by the technical language. Instead, Künsken’s descriptions of chemistry, physics and technology illustrate the hardships and dangerous beauty of life on Venus, enriching the story.
“Beyond the little window was Venus herself, naked in her grey and black basaltic glory, close enough to touch. She was beautiful and deadly, life-giving and ugly, aspects she reconciled without apparent difficulty.”
The setting is one of the most interesting things about this book. The characters have a spiritual relationship with Venus, a drive to connect with it more deeply even as they struggle to survive in its acid clouds, something that is explored in depth throughout the story. The environment is written in stunningly visual and immersive detail, the ever-present Venus both setting and reflecting the tone of the book, adding to the feeling of in-betweenness that the characters experience.
The House of Styx is written from the perspective of different family members, an approach to a novel that feels fresh and exciting, with many beautiful and heart-wrenching moments. Part of the joy of this book is getting to know the D’Aquillons more deeply and understanding their unique personal journeys. Künsken has told important and under-represented stories through characters who have down syndrome, autism and one struggling with their gender identity.
With themes of family, love and identity that transcend the genre and the setting, The House of Styx is a clear reminder that SFF is an under-appreciated literary genre. I would recommend this book to fans of slow-burn, deliberate space operas like Ancillary Justice and A Memory Called Empire. It also reminded me of Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant having similar elements of family, art and rebellion.
The eBook will be published on August 20th and is available for pre-order, while the hardcover edition will be published April 2021 (and will occupy a place of pride on my bookshelf).
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger warning: self-harm, suicide, addiction