My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Caveat: This is not your usual book review; I’ve included some “behind the scenes” musings for once. If you prefer my usual reviews, this may not be your cup of tea. Okay, caveats out of the way–let’s go!
There’s a lot of mutual back-scratching (praise my book, and I’ll praise your book!) which goes on in publishing, both self and trade. I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense, because it comes from a good place: earnest writers genuinely trying to help out other writer buddies.
But I mention it here because I think, if I don’t, my review will look suspect. By way of explanation, I’m one of Essa’s critique partners, and under normal circumstances I would fully expect anyone reading this review to roll their eyes and say, “Of COURSE you think it’s good!”
The thing is, it’s actually the other way around.
NOPHEK GLOSS won me over on its own merits, all while being massively at a disadvantage.
Let me explain further–let’s rewind three years. I was still 29, and muddling painfully through my first (truly terrible) novel. It was finished, but not very good, and I was struggling to find beta reader swaps for it. Beta reader swaps are where you contact another writer, usually someone you don’t know, and agree to critique each other’s books. The critique process is important for everyone, because humans learn best through teaching; when you critique others’ work, you’re teaching yourself to get better, too, as well as benefiting from fresh eyes on your MS.
But the problem with beta swap partners is they’re often not very good experiences. Either you’re a novice, or the other person is, or you both are, or your critique styles just don’t match–hundreds of things that can go wrong, meaning one or both writers abandons the swap. Think about dating online: it’s probably a bit like that, but far more annoying and far less rewarding.
My early beta swap experiences were pretty terrible. The books I was swapping for appalled me. I’m sure my book appalled other people, too. It wasn’t great. 14 readers in a row bailed on me. I mean, yikes. In fairness, my manuscript was terrible.
Anyways. Somehow, I blundered into Essa. We were in lot of the same FB groups: trawling for betas, asking questions, sometimes giving advice; we both wrote “speculative fiction” and aspired to have a literary edge. (Whether we achieve that or not, I leave to readers to decide.) Eventually–to cut a lot of pointless detail short–we ended up swapping books.
The book I swapped for was, of course, Nophek Gloss.
I started reading. This was pretty good! I kept reading, page after page, making my way through the chapters, leaving notes or nitpicks as they struck me, musing on sections, asking questions.
Even after a couple chapters in, I’d already had the realisation that this was the first manuscript I’d ever beta-read which felt like a real book. Like it could actually get picked up and produced by a publisher. The quality of the writing, the micro tension, the descriptions, the ideas, the characters and characterisations; you could just FEEL it.
This book was going to make it.
That very early version of NOPHEK was only 22 chapters long, and much less polished than the novel you are about to embark on (assuming you are reading this review first, that is.) Through the following three years, as we queried agents, swapped more critiques, wrote different books, rewrote old books, and found rep, Essa continued working on NOPHEK to make the novel more refined and eloquent. All the same qualities that early draft had were still present, just expanded and magnified.
In short, I don’t rate the book highly because I know its author; I know its author, because I rated the book highly.
And therefore, when I say that my review is unbiased, I am genuinely being truthful.
For the novel itself, I will simply say that NOPHEK GLOSS is–to me–a coming of age (bildungsroman) story which is pitched at adults, rather than teens. It explores the effects of growing up too fast–literally, thanks to technology–in response to trauma, and the psychological cost of suppressing pain or loss in pursuit of our goals.
And yes, there are lots of other cool things too: the bubble universe stuff, the sheer variety of alien culture and life, the creative and playful interaction with biotech, the ship that creates universes, etc etc. But I will leave most of that for readers to discover, if they wish. There are many surprises and I’d feel bad spoiling them in-depth.
I hope that you will find Nophek Gloss as surprising and delightful as I first did, all those years ago.
PS – this is not available for sale yet. I read an ARC of the recent version, in addition to earlier versions.
PPS – For those interested in rep, the MC is written as ace-spec, and one of the supporting characters is neurodivergent (#ownvoices ND.) Some very good trans and nb rep throughout, too.