Cultivation genre is a sub-set of the speculative fiction umbrella that has only recently started gaining in traction. It arose in China, from the Xanxia tradition, which has many elements of the Qigong technique philosophy about energy. In general, cultivation genre focuses on peple who are cultivators of energy that helps them grow and become powerful, even immortal. Many of the cultivation genre books fall into the fantasy category, but not all. Nathan Thompson’s book Soulship: First Orbit is perhaps more sci-fi than fantasy, but it is still a fascinating read in a genre that I’d not before encountered.
Soulship: First Orbit follows young Jasper Cloud, an outcast in society. He is ostracised for the simple fact that his parents educated him in topics now forbidden in the Global Republish. Only his friend Nova is prepared to help him. Except, as it turns out, Nova isn’t all that she seems. Following instructions that filter into his head from a dead language, Jasper must help the soulship Vessa repair herself and reunite with her other-self, in order to save Nova. Along the way, Jasper learns how to manipulate the Source energy of the world around him: essence, mana, and qi. Jasper must venture to new places and learn new things if he is to help repair Vessa and save Nova. But there are things darkening the night sky and some are turning their attention in his direction.
At first blush, this book looks a lot like a dystopian novel. There is a powerful government that controls how its people speak, think, live. Jasper is one of the ostracised amongst them and, as a result, can see the government for what it truly is. Things change very quickly, though, once the appearance of the soulship occurs. This novel shifts from dystopian to something entirely different. It feels almost like a sci-fi adventure; not quite a hardboiled sci-fi, but something more than a space opera. There are definitely elements of fantasy, though, with the Source energies acting almost like magic. This whole book feels like a genre mash in the best way, because all the elements of some of my favourite genres are in one place, playing together to create something new.
The characters are quite interesting. Jasper, for all that he is on the outside of what remains of Earth society, is very much a well-behaved and very polite person possessed of such things as common decency and a sense of right and wrong. He is, most definitely a cynic, as experience has shown him the price of weakness. Vessa is the flesh-body manifestation of a ship meant to care for and help civilisations in the universe grow. She has been on her own for a long time, needing repairs and managing as best she can. This culminates in an interesting mix of independent will and the need for help. Some of Vessa’s reactions are a bit confusing, but that could just be the fact that she is part ship, something I haven’t any experience with. The other characters—specifically Nova and Lunei—are well described and quite interesting, but aren’t seen enough in the book to really have a set personality. My favourite of the characters, though, is Nestor the lifemouse. He is so cheerful, and learns quickly. At the end, I feel he might have developed a bit of sass, but I’m not quite sure (sequel time!). Definitely a great character, though, with loads of untapped potential.
The real work of art with this book, though, lies in its worldbuilding. On the surface, the world is a fairly simple collection of concepts. There are soulships that roam the universe, helping people. There are forces working against the soulships to gather Source energy and rule the universe. On Earth specifically, society has fallen into a dystopian dreamland—er, nightmare—and the old history has been all but forgotten. In the midst of everything, Source energy enables people to gather energy and grow, becoming more powerful and capable. A few different concepts that all work together to form a complete whole.
The execution of these concepts, though, is akin to seeing a master create a work of art with a single pencil. Picture-perfect and astonishing. The concepts that make up this world are well explained and flow together in a way that makes seemingly-incongrous pieces, like qi and dystopian societies, part of a larger picture. The questions Jasper asks as he tries to understand his new world are pertinent and bring up many other questions. As you read, the world takes shape much as that drawing takes shape. A masterful stroke of the pencil (er, keyboard) and suddenly things are clear and daring you to take a closer look.
Worldbuilding and characters aside, I do have one critique for this novel. The language, particularly in instances of dialogue, seems a bit too congruous. By that, I mean that the characters all generally speak with the same style and it makes it difficult to tell them apart. I can tell easily from dialogue tags who is speaking, but without those tags, the characters sound much alike, even if what they are saying is quite different. Except for Nestor. He’s about as distinct as a character can get.
On the whole, I found Soulship: First Orbit to be an intriguing read with many different avenues to explore. The worldbuilding was excellent and combined genres that aren’t normally seen together into one well-made whole. The characters were fun to read and I quite enjoyed watching Jasper grow throughout the novel. I think the concept for this book was really good and I’m eager to read more about cultivation genre. On to book two, I think.