Truth of the Divine is the second novel from American author, YouTuber, and critic Lindsay Ellis and is the direct sequel to her debut novel Axiom’s End picking up a few months after the events of that novel. We continue to follow Cora Sabino as she serves as interpreter and becomes increasingly closely bonded with the alien Ampersand. Taking a hard right-turn away from the heavy pop culture references directly into some extremely dark and heavy terrain, Truth of the Divine takes the political, and social building blocks in Axiom’s End and takes a stark look at a wide array of topics. It includes a page-long content warning, and while this review will shy away from including those topics in any detail, definitely read over the warning in-store before you decide if you want to buy it.
The human race is at a crossroads; we know that we are not alone, but details about the alien presence on Earth are still being withheld from the public. As the political climate grows more unstable, the world is forced to consider the ramifications of granting human rights to nonhuman persons. How do you define “person” in the first place?
Cora Sabino not only serves as the full-time communication intermediary between the alien entity Ampersand and his government chaperones but also shares a mysterious bond with him that is both painful and intimate in ways neither of them could have anticipated. Despite this, Ampersand is still keen on keeping secrets, even from Cora, which backfires on them both when investigative journalist Kaveh Mazandarani, a close colleague of Cora’s unscrupulous estranged father, witnesses far more of Ampersand’s machinations than anyone was meant to see.
Since Cora has no choice but to trust Kaveh, the two must work together to prove to a fearful world that intelligent, conscious beings should be considered persons, no matter how horrifying, powerful, or malicious they may seem. Making this case is hard enough when the public doesn’t know what it’s dealing with—and it will only become harder when a mysterious flash illuminates the sky, marking the arrival of an agent of chaos that will light an already-unstable world on fire.
In my previous review of Axiom’s End I closed by describing it as a concept with a lot of room to grow, and it definitely did. We’ve leaned in on the existentialism and philosophical issues of personhood and ‘human’ rights and pulled back from making sure we know the video game being played is specifically Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and landed on a level of pop culture reference that gives a sense of place, instead of hammering it into us. That tonal change along with the introduction of Kaveh Mazandarani, Iranian refugee and investigative journalist who has, as you can imagine for a novel set in 2008, some pretty pointed political views about America, push the novel in some new directions and much further along the trails laid by Axiom’s End.
If anything, this is my only criticism of the novel, which is actually a retroactive criticism of the first book: I wish the first book had been more like this one. I think there might be a genuine concern that there’s less overlap between people who would really enjoy both books than you’d hope as somebody writing an ongoing series. I think people who loved all the pop culture references and the more hopeful tone of the first novel might be shocked by the shift in tone and themes in the sequel, and that people who might have bounced off the first book who would love this one might not give it a chance. So I’ll say it here: If the concept of Axiom’s End was interesting to you but it felt like it didn’t really sink its teeth into all the possibilities of the concept, read Truth of the Divine before you decide you might opt out of the series.
That out of the way, let’s talk about themes. It’s very common in ‘first contact with more advanced aliens’ stories to go down the routes of either ‘conquering aliens meet unexpected human resistance’ or ‘we came here to get you to help us fight something’ and Ellis’ choice to have the aliens essentially be refugees themselves opened the door to a lot of really interesting content that might not have otherwise made sense. Science fiction pretty much as a mission statement is for examining the very real issues in the world through the lens of the unreal, to give us a step of detachment to look at how the issues we face today play out when they can be done divorced from our actual reality.
But rather than give us any real distance, taking place in the future, or involving interactions with alien governments, having the aliens coming among the general population, or any of those usual distancing tools, Ellis has said ‘no, you don’t get to have distance’ and shoved the problems directly in our face and forced us to contend with them. Here we have our rabble-rousing populist politician, here we have our Iranian-American reporter thinking several times he’s going to be vanished into a black site never to be seen again, here we have a blown up mosque, gun-toting racists, an economic crash. This isn’t happening in the future, or the near future, it’s happening during a period that most of her readers remember extremely well.
And we also remember the traumas of that period of time. When you’re staying on working for the government in a top secret facility where you feel constantly unqualified to be, under constant threat of who-knows-what consequences while trying and mostly failing to cope with extremely serious PTSD because the economy is bad and you need the money and you can’t afford therapy, or meds. Hoo boy, that feeling tho. And so it’s through the lens of a tragically identifiable-with person that we’re dealing with issues of loss, abandonment, fear, and threats of violence, and as per the content warning in the preface to the novel, some parts of this were very hard to read.
But that’s what makes it so great. The fact that it is hard to read, that you develop genuine sympathy for and empathy with Cora, Kaveh, Ampersand and others, and their struggles is what keeps it so compelling. The trade paperback version of the novel ran to just under 500 pages, and I burned through it in about 2 days, which didn’t used to be fast, but at the rate I have time for reading lately is a pretty breakneck pace. While the -content- is difficult to read, the prose itself flows very easily. The issue I raised in Axiom’s End about the narration being a little stilted is dramatically improved. Ellis has made the conversion from media critic to novelist in the way she writes, and you can feel it right from the first page.
I’ve sat here for a good few minutes now trying and discarding phrases to find one to indicate that I really liked this novel more than the first one, that doesn’t sound like I’m saying the first one was bad, because it wasn’t. But it was very different. And the ways in which this one is different are far more to my personal tastes than the first one. Honestly it really all comes down to the heavy pop culture name dropping in Axiom’s End and it feels really petty to harp on it since it was a little distracting and a little off-putting but didn’t actually detract from the story in any meaningful way. But I’m watching The Mentalist right now and I’m up to a season that aired in 2012-2013 where there’s a picture of the Governor on the wall of their office, and it’s Jerry Brown, and they did a flashback episode to 2008 and we got one slightly lingering shot on the portrait being of Arnold Schwarzenegger to help remind us that we’d gone back in time. That’s all that was needed, and Truth of the Divine strikes exactly the right balance of topical names where they belong and not focusing too much on it.
It makes me wonder what Axiom’s End would have been like if the focus group hadn’t loved all the pop culture references to the point where more were added. Pulling back on them here gives the story room to breathe, and it’s such a poignant and tragic story that it really needed the space. And having been given it, it was elevated. I absolutely cannot wait for the next novel in the series to come out.
Truth of the Divine is released (as of the day of this writing, subject to change I’m sure) October 12th, 2021 in Hardcover, eBook and Digital Audio from St. Martin’s Press.
(Dan received an Advance Readers’ Edition of this novel from St. Martin’s Press)
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