Welcome to the Intergalactic Academy’s very first book review! Today I’ll be taking a look at The Pearl Wars by Nick James. For a key to our review format, hop on over to our review policy page!
A devastated Earth’s last hope is found in Pearls: small, mysterious orbs that fall from space and are capable of supplying enough energy to power entire cities. Battling to control the Pearls are the Skyship dwellers—political dissidents who live in massive ships in the Earth’s stratosphere—and the corrupt Surface government.
Jesse Fisher, a Skyship slacker, and Cassius Stevenson, a young Surface operative, cross paths when they both venture into forbidden territory in pursuit of Pearls. Their chance encounter triggers an unexpected reaction, endowing each boy with remarkable—and dangerous—abilities that their respective governments would stop at nothing to possess.
Enemies thrust together with a common goal, Jesse and Cassius make their way to the ruins of Seattle to uncover the truth about their new powers, the past they didn’t know they shared, and a shocking secret about the Pearls.
- synopsis and cover courtesy of goodreads.com
Atmospheric Analysis: The cover of The Pearl Wars follows a proud tradition of books whose covers feature dudes wearing goggles or gasmasks. The face-with-steampunk-goggles thing worked well for Cherie Priest, but it doesn’t make much sense here. The man featured on the cover is much too old to be either of the main characters; goggles only appear once in the narrative, late and in a minor scene; and The Pearl Wars isn’t steampunk at all, despite the presence of shiny brass on the cover.
It’s a shame, really. My review copy wore a cover much truer to the contents inside. The original had figures that clearly represented the characters (the guy in the middle is so Jesse), played up the green glowing magic of the Pearls, and even featured a skyship. Oh well. I suppose the old cover–illustrated, and accurately representing the contents within–is a bit dated. The new cover is safer, and more safely modern YA. Even if it lies.
Planetary Class: Set after chemical warfare has destroyed most of America–and our own retaliative attacks have blown up much of Asia and Eastern Europe–The Pearl Wars is definitively post-apocalyptic.
Mohs Rating: The Pearl Wars rates a solid 2 on Mohs scale of SF hardness. The “Pearls” which power the cities are applied phlebotinum, and the world becomes more fantastic as you learn more about it, but the internal laws are used consistently and sensibly.
Planetary Viability: One of the strongest aspects of James’ novel is the worldbuilding. A complex military and political past provides the foundation for Jesse Fisher’s world, a world where some of the population lives in floating skyships and the rest are crowded into fifty “chosen cities,” protected from environmental devastation by bio-nets. What I enjoyed most about the world of The Pearl Wars wasn’t merely how vivid it felt, but also how relevant it felt to our modern lives. The Unified Party took power after terrorist attacks and promptly went on the offensive. It’s easy to see parallels in modern America, though James doesn’t hit you over the head with an overt political message.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: The prose here is crisp and efficient. Unfortunately, James took a structural gamble. He alternates chapters told through a first-person perspective in present tense with chapters written in third-person past tense–and I’m not sure it paid off. Though both halves are independently strong, I found the cumulative effect confusing and a bit distancing even deep into the book.
Expanded Report: The Pearl Wars is the story of Jesse Fisher, Skyship Academy student who has an unpleasant run-in with Unified Party agent Cassius Stevenson one day when they’re both out chasing Pearls. He’s shocked to find himself alive after falling to what he presumed would be his death. Cassius also faces a shock that day–a sudden explosion of destructive power.
Nick James’ novel alternates between Jesse Fisher’s perspective and a third-person POV that closely follows Cassius. Fisher’s sections are particularly engaging. He’s very strongly voiced–his speech peppered with slang, appropriately adolescent sarcasm, and sharp perceptions of those around him. Particularly interesting are his relationships with the girls of the Skyship Academy: barb-tongued Eva, and Avery, whose own lack of academic success closely parallels Fisher’s. It was refreshing to encounter two such complex, well-drawn girls in such an action-oriented novel.
And it is. The story proceeds in a pacey, plotty way as Jesse decides to flee the Skyship and Cassius takes off after him. Their journey takes them across the post-apocalyptic landscape, to some unusual American locales–they begin in Syracuse, make stops in Ellensberg, Washington and outside of Wichita, Kansas. It was nice to read a novel that wasn’t obsessively focused on the big coastal cities.
The setting generally is one of the biggest draws here. It’s vivid, filled with dark shadows and bright, contrasting colors. Despite the cover, it’s not a steampunk novel, not really–closer to old school space opera with a bit of post-apocalyptic dust sprinkled over it. Certain elements–the mysterious, powerful Pearls; the Skyships; the ragtag group of teens that the novel follows–reminded me of the Final Fantasy franchise of games. I hadn’t quite realized that I’ve always wanted to see something like Final Fantasy VI transformed into a novel, but The Peal Wars scratches the same sort of itch, with a far more coherent plot.
Unfortunately (like, perhaps, the Final Fantasy games), the pacing does flag a bit in the middle, an effect amplified by the rotating narration. It took me a long time to feel properly hooked, and I worried at first that it wouldn’t happen at all. Luckily, in the last hundred pages a plot twist grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I found myself completely enveloped in Jesse and Cassius’ story. I’m excited to see where James takes us next.
The Pearl Wars will appeal to fans of JRPGs, readers who love complex sci-fi universes, and those who enjoy action-oriented, post-apocalyptic reads. The first thirty pages are free to read online, and the novel is available to purchase from Amazon or your local indie bookstore.
To celebrate our very first review, we’re giving away a copy of The Pearl Wars, along with a signed card and note from the author, Nick James! To enter, comment below before 11:59 EST on Sunday, September 11th; be sure to leave your email address so we can contact you if you win. The winner will be announced on Monday when we’ll also feature a guest post from Nick James on his influences!