Book Review #1: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

I rarely review things because I have a tendency to change my mind over time, and I hate disagreeing with myself. But I’ve read three books this week, and they’re still floating around in my head, so I thought I’d give brief thoughts on each book. (This was going to be short reviews of each book, but they all ended up too long, so I’m splitting them up.)

SPOILERS!!!

First, yes, I do have copious amounts of free time, but no, I did not spend them reading. I actually listened to Axiom’s End on Audible and then used the text-to-speech function on my Kindle app to listen to the other two. To be honest, I prefer reading text-to-eyeballs, but I won’t refer to that as “real” reading because even though I personally prefer the tactile function of reading, the journey is comparatively the same whether the book is read or listened to. I won’t devalue the experience of people who can’t read for whatever reason due to a sensory snobbery that is based on the fact that my ability to process spoken words isn’t as good as my ability to process written words. Also, if you’re going to judge me by anything in this paragraph, how about the fact that I supported the same corporation that treats its employees unethically and whose standard of quality has declined with its popularity, like most monopolies do — twice?

Second, I’ve always had a thing about listening to books but I was working on a crafting project with a strict deadline, so I signed up for free trials of Audible and Kindle Unlimited so that I could listen while my hands were busy. (I actually purchased Axiom’s End, but couldn’t stop to read it, so I signed up for Audible so that I could listen to it.) Anyway, due to the fact that I don’t like listening to books, I won’t be reviewing the voice actors in Axiom’s End. I preferred the text-to-speech function in the Kindle app because it allowed me to choose my own emphasis. There’s a lot of internal arguing when I don’t like how a voice actor chose to interpret a section of writing, and the text-to-speech function works really well, as long as the book is edited properly with lots of good punctuation. Although, that said, I will say that Ollie of Philosophy Tube did a great job and that he has a remarkably soothing American accent, even when he’s playing a character who is kind of a turd of a human being.

Anyway, disclaimers out of the way, I’ll start with the first book I read this week, which was Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End. I have been waiting for this book to come out ever since I found out that Lindsay had a book coming out, which was about 9 months ago, when I watched her X0X0 speech. I’ve been watching her video essays for a couple of years and I always find her videos to be entertaining, insightful, and the most important thing in a good author — empathetic.

My first impression of Axiom’s End wasn’t good. I was genuinely disappointed, which was — disappointing. It occurred to me that even though I’ve been training myself to like audio books more by listening to Terry Pratchett and Georgette Heyer books that I’ve already bought/read multiple times, that maybe I was missing something due the sensory experience of listening.

So, I cracked open my Kindle version one night — okay, who are we kidding, one morning, before bed. I started from the first chapter and found that, yep, the visual process of reading allowed for a depth and comprehension that listening to the book wasn’t giving me. I was still on a crafting deadline so I went back to listening to the book with more trust in the author, and found myself becoming more engaged. I’ll probably read this book again in a few months and like it a lot better than I remembered.

But, that said, here is a short synopsis: The book follows Cora, whose father is a famous conspiracy theorist. Their relationship is estranged because Cora thinks her dad is crazy, and because he basically abandoned her family when she was younger. Cora lives with her mother, brother and sister (both younger) and their two dogs. Cora dropped out of college about six months before the story starts, doesn’t believe in aliens, and doesn’t particularly like her job as a temp.

In the first chapter, we find that Cora and her family are being followed (probably by the CIA), a meteor flies past the building Cora works in and shatters the windows, and Cora is fired for leaving work without checking out with anyone. Later that night, Cora sees an alien. So, action-wise, we get into it pretty quickly. I will say that, from Lindsay Ellis, I was expecting more of a wise-cracking, uber-jaded main character, but Cora was earnestly confused, scared, and tongue-tied throughout the book.

I liked the choice, as sincerity seems to be making a comeback and it also made Cora’s journey feel more authentic, as opposed to wish-fulfillment. Also, Ellis mentioned that Ender’s Game was a huge influence on this book, and Ender was a very earnest character (even though, as Ellis acknowledges, Orson Scott Card’s politics are toxic and BAD). I could see the influence in the way that Cora was either emotionally or physically isolated from the secondary characters in the book. This means that the reader was as forced to emotionally connect to the robotic alien, Ampersand, as much as the main character was (Almost, haha).

I would say that the secondary characters were pretty cardboard. I think that the best way to handle secondary and tertiary characters that the reader only gets glimpses of is the Georgette Heyer method. Instead of trying to make each character fully dimensional, she gives the character a very strong opinion on a specific thing or a very specific characteristic. This might sound like the recipe for a one-dimensional caricature, which is would be, if the story was based around this character. A main character should have strengths and flaws, and moments of humor mixed with moments of pathos. A tertiary character only needs to be interesting for a moment, so why not catch them in a moment in which they are interesting?

Also, specificity doesn’t need to be silly. Some of my favorite moments in Georgette Heyer novels is when the omniscient narrator jumps into the head of a servant observing his employer’s guests at dinner, or reacting to the first appearance of the heroine in their employer’s house. The fact that Georgette Heyer specializes in Regency romance novels means that pretty much any Regency convention allows the reader a glimpse into an entire world, so what’s conventional to the servant is automatically alien and therefore interesting to the modern reader.

This is not to say that Ellis would have done better with an omniscient POV, just that you can make a character endearing, ridiculous, or detestable with just a few words. One of my favorite interactions in a Georgette Heyer novel is in Sylvester, between the hero of the story and his widowed sister-in-law’s new fiance. The fiance is a vain idiot, but Sylvester is not, and we find him amusing himself during a conversation he’d rather not be having with a person he has no respect for, and he does it without being noticeably rude. So, just a short excerpt, and honestly, this is probably my favorite scene in one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels, so if you don’t like it, you probably wouldn’t like her books.

In the scene, Sylvester is referred to as “Duke”, and the sister-in-laws’s new fiance is “Sir Nugent”.

“She did,” asseverated Sir Nugent gravely. “`My sweet life,’ I said – you’ve no objection to that, Duke?”

“Not the least in the world.”

“You haven’t?” exclaimed Sir Nugent, slewing his body round to stare at Sylvester, an exertion which the stiff points of his collar and the height of that Oriental Tie made necessary.

“Why should I?”

“You’ve put your finger on the nub, Duke!” said Sir Nugent. “Why should you? I can’t tell, and I believe I’ve cut my wisdoms. `My love,’ I said (if you’ve no objection) `you’ve got a maggot in your Idea-pot.'”

“And what had she to say to that?” enquired Sylvester, conscious of a wish that Phoebe had not cantered ahead.

“She denied it,” said Sir Nugent. “Said you were bent on throwing a rub in our way.”

“Oh?”

“Just what I said myself! `Oh!’ I said.”

“Not `my love’?”

“Not then. Because I was surprised. You might say I was betwattled.”

“Like a duck in a thunderstorm.”

“No,” said Sir Nugent, giving this his consideration. “I fancy, Duke, that if you were to ask all round the ton if Nugent Fotherby had ever looked like any species of fowl in such a situation the answer would be, in a word, No!”

Excerpt from “Sylvester”, by Georgette Heyer

So, if you’re not familiar with Regency-ese, Sir Nugent is someone who likes to think of himself as very fashionable and he wears his shirt collar so high that he can’t turn his neck. He has to turn at the waist in order to look over at Sylvester. The modern-day equivalent might be Lady Gaga choosing to make full shoulder spikes a daily choice rather than saved for special occasions. In the scene, Sir Nugent is surprised to find that Sylvester has no interest in breaking up his engagement to Sylvester’s sister-in-law. Also, Phoebe is the heroine of the story, and Sylvester is starting to like her and is sad that she has ridden on ahead (they’re on horses).

So, in this small portion of this scene, we get a sketch of Sir Nugent’s character, Sylvester’s character, and his vague admission that he’s interested in Phoebe — which, if you read the first chapter, is VERY interesting. Also, similarly to Darcy and Wickham in Pride & Prejudice, both Sylvester and Sir Nugent are presented as arrogant, but one is more forgivable. On a side note, I would say that between Sir Nugent and Wickham, Sir Nugent is more likable, but that’s only because he’s amusing. Wickham tries to rape an underage girl and Sir Nugent succeeds in kidnapping a five-year-old, so neither is a great guy.

Anyway, to apply this to Axiom’s End, my emotional investment in Cora’s family is really low because Cora’s mom is a workaholic who thinks about work a lot, her brother is a teenage know-it-all who sneaks into the computer room to download porn in the middle of the night, and Cora’s sister is a sweet six-year-old. Her temper tantrum when she finds out that aliens are real strikes me as one-note and contrived. However, Cora’s sister worships Avril Lavigne and thinks that Ani DiFranco is boring. This was Ellis introducing a secondary character without a lot of screen time in a memorable way. I even remember that her family had to talk her out of wearing ties to school (like Avril) because that is the one unique detail we’re given about her. We assume the ordinary stuff about her but this simple detail hints at depth.

I will say, too, that Cora’s brother is introduced as kind of an ass but as soon as there’s an alien in the house, he acts more his actual age than the full adult every thirteen-year-old thinks they are. He’s happy enough to let his older sister take charge, but is a willing second-in-command. He’s also protective of his younger sister.

Unfortunately, the mother is the most one-dimensional, shrill, selfish, and useless person to have around, particularly in a crisis. This makes me sad because even though my mom was a drunk mess, she was amazing in a crisis and would have killed to protect her children. If Cora’s mother had taken control in that scene, I would have liked her better and she would have come off as more dimensional.

The scene could still have ended with Cora running out to try to find the dog because it wouldn’t have made sense for the mother to do that. So, Cora still would have found the alien and our adventure still would have started here. Overall, I think that the word count spent with Cora’s family should have been utilized more effectively or just cut entirely. If the book started at the beginning of Chapter 9, I would have had a similar level of emotional investment in rescuing her family from the CIA.

Throughout the book, I wished that Luciana was around to answer some questions, but any time she’s in a scene, she’s so tight-lipped and defensive that she might as well not be there. Again, not handled in an unrealistic way, but not particularly engaging either. Also, Cora and Luciana get into a verbal fight near the end of the book and then for a while we’re not sure if Luciana is dead or alive and Cora feels really bad about the fight but, I, as a reader, was not particularly invested. To clarify, I’m never happy to hear that someone died, but I wasn’t sad that Luciana’s essence was no longer a part of our world, because I never really got a sense of her essence. Also, I never believe a character is dead until I see the body, and even then, I’m only 20% sure they won’t come back. I’ve watched too many soap operas and sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, and wrestling shows.

I also feel like the scene where Cora visits Luciana and her crew — all of whom know about the aliens — is wasted. Cora initially describes her close encounter to Luciana in the woods with no one else around. Luciana doesn’t believe her, but she introduces Cora to the group. Then she takes Cora up to find a new outfit and lets her shower. Then she’s taken down to tell the group what happened. This is the direct passage of Cora’s interaction with the group.

Now having had the time to calm down and run through it in her mind, she was better able to explain what happened.

Did the entity make eye contact? She couldn’t be sure; she’d run away. Did it actually touch her? She couldn’t be sure; it felt more like a magnetic force than being touched. Did it show interest in the computer? Yes, it had dismantled the computer. She saw it hiding in the neighbor’s yard when she was at the mailbox? She couldn’t be sure — at the time, she thought she’d imagined it. Did it make any noise? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure. Did it make any bid to communicate? She didn’t think so, but she couldn’t be sure.

With all this ambiguity, she was started to see why Bard and Luciana were skeptical.

She didn’t get a sense of antipathy from the group. It seemed as though what she was saying just didn’t compute. Like they had been expecting an invading Hun army but she was describing a horde of invading spiders. But what was more noteworthy wasn’t the way they treated her but the way they treated Luciana — the way they interrupted her or stepped over her questions and comments made it seem like Luciana was on thin ice.

Luciana sent Cora back outside onto the porch while the grown-ups talks over what she’d just told them.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Bad, but not un-fixable. The first thing I’d do is cut the finding a new outfit scene, a lot. Here’s how I’d handle that. “Cora arrived at the safe house. Her aunt escorted her up to shower and gave her a change of clothes. Then Cora went downstairs and met the group.” Boom! The least interesting part of the chapter whittled down to three sentences. Also, I’d probably go back further than that. The scene between Bard and Cora effectively makes me dislike him the same way that Cora does, but then very similarly dialogue is immediately repeated between Cora and her aunt, so by the time we get to tell the story to the group, we’re all exhausted of this story. Not only did we live it, but we’ve had a phone conversation with Luciana, an in-person conversation with Bard, and in-person conversation with Luciana rehashing it.

If Cora had waited to tell the full story to the group, that scene would have been better and the scenes with Bard and Luciana could have been cut down without any loss at all to the story. I would transport the actual dialogue Cora had with her aunt to the scene with the group. This way, Ellis could show, instead of tell us what the interaction was. The group could interrogate her with dialogue tags and everything.

For me, there are two wasted opportunities with the way the scene is written. First, Ellis named the characters in the group after her friends, a lot of them her fellow YouTubers. So, if Ellis had fleshed out this scene, we would have gotten actual cameos of these people, which would have a) been a great fan moment for me, but also b) would have demonstrated not only Cora’s burgeoning dynamic with the group but her aunt’s “thin ice” dynamic. We would have seen, rather been told, that Luciana was constantly being interrupted and would have been able to infer and internalize that dynamic.

The way it happened, Cora could have been abducted in the park near her house, and we would have gotten to the Google campus several chapters earlier, and not missed anything. The Google campus is Chapter 9, and this is when the story gets interesting. Cora is confronted by the alien in the woods, and then wakes up at Google headquarters. The alien psychically tells her to try to get into the server room, and Cora is apprehended by security. The power in the building goes out, and Cora escapes. She finds Bard’s van magically in the parking lot with the alien inside, and Cora escapes with the alien.

From here (once the alien wakes up) Cora and the alien, nicknamed Ampersand, are able to communicate. Cora needs to rescue her family from the CIA who may or may not be brainwashing them to make them forget about the alien in the living room, and Ampersand needs to rescue his friends. They agree to work together. I can’t critique much about Cora’s and Ampersand’s relationship because it’s layered and confusing to both of them and builds up believably over the rest of the book.

I say “believably”, but again, not in a wish-fulfillment way. In a wish-fulfillment way, we’d find Ampersand to be extremely sweet and super relatable and we would start to root for him. Instead, his voice is mechanical due to the device he uses in order to communicate with Cora, and there’s a lot about himself that he can’t explain because his culture is so different from hers, and he’s been pretty brutal to humans in the past (including Cora). Similarly, there is a lot that he doesn’t understand about Cora. Also, as an interesting point, he has physical vulnerabilities that, despite his size and strength, makes him afraid of her.

I think that my only dispute with the way that their relationship progresses is that she is later shocked by certain revelations about Ampersand’s choices both before and after she met him — like killing humans. Also, that Ampersand was the one brainwashing people who knew about aliens, not the CIA. These revelations, to me, seemed obvious and shouldn’t have been confusing to Cora at all.

I think, in these areas, the device of setting the story in 2007 was supposed to camouflage some of these “surprises”. Because Roswell wasn’t yet a TV show (twice), Cora could be naive about certain things. But the reader is still in 2020, and is very familiar with aliens. Hell, I’ve never watched a single episode of X-Files, but I still know who Mulder and Scully are, which of them is the skeptic and the believer, and whether or not Mulder was ever vindicated (no, but Scully got to meet lots of aliens and she still didn’t believe in them). I also know that there’s a dude with a cigarette in a lot of the episodes, for some reason.

So, the rift between Cora and Ampersand when she finds this out feels poorly contrived and just sad. It’s interesting that Ellis, who is a brilliant video essayist, could have pointed this out as a reader, but missed it as a writer. Also, having gone the traditional, rather than self-published route, I have to wonder where the hell her editor was for this part of the book. It’s also frustrating to know that she had bestselling authors who were direct mentors and who wrote blurbs for the book, who didn’t point any of this stuff out to her. It seems cruel, knowing what a large platform Ellis has and the amount of backlash she’ll get from non-fans, for these bestselling authors not have nudged her in more dimensional directions with her book.

Also, speaking of editors, Ellis uses two to three words where one will do. Okay, here’s another un-requested confession: I still don’t understand the technical difference between an adverb and an adjective. I do know that they both describe stuff, I can use them correctly, and I know that using two or three where one will do is frustrating to my critique partners, so I’ve tried to cure myself of that. This is not something that Ellis’ editor seems to ever have pointed out, so there are a lot of unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, or both. I do understand that too many can undermine urgency, authority, and conciseness but other than that bad habit, I found the writing to be clear, organized, and enjoyable.

Overall, I liked the progression of the book, and I will definitely read Ellis’ next book. This is partially, but not entirely, due to being a fan of her video essays. I think that she has a lot of interesting things to say and this book barely skated across the tip of the iceberg. I think that a lot of the disconnect I felt toward the story and the characters had to do with a combination of my audio comprehension issues and her determination to make her first book “perfect”. This a) isn’t possible, and b) is an attitude that snuffs out creativity at the spark. One of my favorite things about reading Inkitt or Wattpad stories is that the stories are un-apologetically over-the-top, ridiculous, and — fun.

I used to look back at my earlier writing and cringe at some of the more unfeasible aspects of the plot, but I looked at my first real attempt at a fantasy novel a couple of years ago, and actually found it charming. Directionless and silly, but surprising in ways that I hadn’t allowed my writing to be in a long time. I think that this fear of seeming silly while writing a love story between a human and an alien is probably the biggest flaw in Axiom’s Edge. I hope that as Ellis continues to grow as a writer that she’ll feel freer to embrace the absurdity inherent in creating any kind of story.

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