The conclusion of a multiversal space opera series with a final conflict simultaneously personal and epic.
Caiden Winn has come far. From being left as food for creatures that produce one of the most important substances in the multiverse, through slowly uncovering his true nature and perhaps his destiny as embodying in part the ancient progenitors and creators of the multiverse as people know it, through confrontation with forces trying to rule that multiverse, Caiden is now a hero. He denies it, but he is a hero, a a rallying point, a center of resistance and change. The universe needs this. Caiden's foe, the dynast Abriss Centre, armed with the spirit of one of those Graven progenitors, the titular Ethera, from her position at the center of the multiverse, has a plan to remake the entire multiverse into one universe, no matter the cost. But it is the conflict and relationship Ethera has to her ancient companions that may decide the fate of all.
All this is the story of Ethera Grave, the third and final of the Nophek Gloss trilogy by Essa Hansen.
The multiversal space opera of Essa Hansen has provided a gigantic canvas to tell a story with the largest of stakes--the fate of the multiverse, and at the same time narrow and focus it down to the individual level. Let's start at the top and work our way down. For readers who it's been a while since reading either of the previous two volumes, the canvas on which Essa Hansen draws her story is a multiverse divided into individual smaller universes, each with their own physical laws, properties, and uniqueness. The individual universes are, in the context of things, relatively small (and by small, I mean they aren't each the size of our own universe, maybe each a sector of a galaxy, relatively speaking). Still, a plethora of universes, that, together, form a huge conglomeration of worlds and peoples. At the center of this constellation of multiverses is the universe known as Unity. Is it the OG universe? It seems so, the properties of this universe seem to most align with the power and abilities of the Graven, the ancient species who broke the universe into the multiverse in the first place.
Now we can narrow in. Three individuals from that ancient species, the Graven, now exist in various forms in the modern day. First, there is Azura. We met Azura in the first book, Nophek Gloss, as she was embodied in a ship that Caiden found and found he could manipulate (a first clue as to his real potential). Azura represents choice, freedom, autonomy (which again was embodied in her as ship, she could create her own universe inside the ship). Vaith, representing a compromise between autonomy and ultimate order, and then there is the titular Ethera. Ethera is for a single universe, a single purpose, a single set of rules. The breaking of the universe into the multiverse was a terrible mistake to be rolled back.
Hansen weaves the story of these three Graven (complete with flashback like narrative devices to show them interacting) into our main three protagonists in the modern day. Caiden, you already have met. It would be reductive to say he is the hero of the trilogy, he certainly has his doubts, but he is our primary point of view character here, and in the entire series as a whole. He met Azura in the first book, and here in the third book, aligns himself with Vaith to try and stop Ethera. Ethera is working with Abriss Cetre, and the two of them have the same plan (or is it Ethera's plan?). Abriss' plan is grandiose even in its simplicity: collapse all the diversity and difference of the multiverses back into a single universe. A single unity. A perfect, single order. And then there is Threi. Threi has been Caiden's antagonist for much of th previous two books, but, now, Threi is working with Caiden, however vitriolically, to stop his sister, Abriss, from her plan. So the mappings of Threi==Azura, Caiden==Vaith, Abriss==Ethera sets up a double exposure of a conflict played out at large scales.
Through it all, Caiden has his relationship with the rest of this found family that he has accumulated over the last two books. Threi is torn between trying to save his sister, oppose his sister and find meaning for himself. (He also has a sweet and tortured love affair that will break and heal your heart). As far as Abriss, Hansen very carefully shows that her, and Ethera for that matter, are not mustache twirling villains, but that their goals, hopes and wants are simply antithetical to what Caiden and his friends and family want and need. Who is right about what is best for the universe, Abriss/Ethera or those who oppose them?
This makes Ethera Grave and the entire series a case study in having antagonists with understandable and meaningful goals that make sense to them, and to the reader. Through all the other virtues of the novel, I could see Abriss (and Ethera's) point and their desire for a single, unified universe, polity, set of rules in order to bring a sense of order to what they saw is a dangerous verse. A unified verse would prevent things like Caiden's community being sacrificed to feed the gloss producing Nophek. And yet, Hansen doesn't equivocate what the costs of such an order are, as we met species and see worlds who flourish under their own laws of physics, their own rules of their universe, and how being absorbed into Unity not only destroys that uniqueness, that diversity, those special characteristics, but is inimical to those species' very survival.
Through all of these grand stakes, Hansen provides conflicts on scales intimate and epic. Caiden coming to terms with Vaith is literally all in his head, the most intimate of thorny subjects to navigate. And then we have titanic individual battles, as Threi and Caiden try to stop the seemingly unstoppable Abriss Cetre and her companions, devastating entire cities and regions of planets in their fights. And even greater than that is Abriss and Ethera's forced unification of multiversal verses into Unity, grand epic descriptions as the rind of a multiverse gives way and becomes the part of the center whole. Hansen's descriptions of all of these conflicts are evocative, invoke multiple senses, and have an epic feel. While we have had excellent descriptions of conflicts and clashes in the previous two books, Hansen has saved for her capstone book all of her heavy weaponry.
There is sacrifice, heartbreak, loss, and ultimately costs to Caiden, Threi and their efforts to oppose Ethera and Abriss. The novel, the series, makes it clear that to fight for what you believe in, at the grandest of scales, is a freighted endeavor. Not only on a universe level, but also on a personal level, there are, ultimately, prices to be paid. Hansen concludes her trilogy with a bang, but in the end, confirms that for the survivors, the journey, the struggle, the opposition, was in fact, worth it. And, for readers who have followed the series, I can say the same for Ethera Grave and the entire series. It will be going on my Hugo ballot for Best Series for the 2023 Hugos.
- Epic battles, personal, emotional, multiversal
- Strong throughline of triple conflict between the Graven and current protagonists
- Complex and interesting antagonists.
Reference: Hansen, Essa, Ethera Grave, [Orbit, 2023]