(Spoiler warning: while I’ve tried to step lightly, some discussions of plot, characters, and events might spoil certain developments in the books.)
Essa Hansen brings her Graven trilogy to a universe-altering conclusion in Ethera Grave, a book that is rich, complex, immensely satisfying, and likely the weirdest instalment in this science fiction series.
For those unfamiliar with the books, a (severely) truncated recap:
We first meet Caiden, the trilogy’s protagonist, in Nophek Gloss, when he is just a boy, running for his life, fighting to survive, eventually looking for revenge while trying to find his way in a multiverse that surpasses his wildest dreams. In Azura Ghost, book two, Caiden has spent ten years on the run in order to keep his freedom and to keep his sentient spaceship Azura safe, but the truth about his past catches up to him and alters his life forever. In Ethera Grave, Caiden has become a leader with a singular purpose—to save the multiverse from Abriss Cetre, the most powerful being in existence—but he is reluctant to wield the powers he has gained, and leery of the sacrifices he must make to ensure victory.
All this might sound like a more or less familiar “hero’s journey” which it is, but also isn’t. Ethera Grave, and the Graven trilogy, feature many such familiar science fiction elements—found family, sentient spaceships, political intrigue, aliens and humans working together, mind- and body-altering technology, and a multiverse—but at every step, in every detail, Hansen infuses these familiar elements with her own unique vision, and a profound, utterly beguiling strangeness.
Hansen’s multiverse is a prime example of this. It is not a collection of alternate dimensions or separate timelines where you might run into diverse versions of the same characters a la Marvel. Instead, this multiverse is made up of bubble-shaped universes embedded within one another or stuck together like foam. The largest universe is called Unity, and it’s the universe favored by Abriss Cetre, (seemingly) Caiden’s main antagonist in Ethera Grave. Once upon a time, Unity was the only universe in existence. But ever since a transformative event in the distant past, innumerable smaller universes have continued to bubble into existence from Unity. Some of them are no bigger than a planet or a spaceship—but each one has its own unique lifeforms and laws of physics. Travel between universes is possible and even rather common, though it’s not always safe. Universes can also be destroyed, “popped,” using a technology originally invented by Abriss, and as a universe-bubble collapses, whatever life evolved there is altered or annihilated, and the universe itself becomes part of the invading universe.
Nestled inside/beneath/beyond this bubbling and expanding multiverse is the uncanniest and, in my opinion, the most fascinating science fantasy addition to Hansen’s science fiction opus: a trippy-as-hell spirit dimension—the luminiferity. The luminiferity is described as “a spiritual domain of collective consciousness freed from space time,” and a “nonphysical dimension of energy and information from which physical reality manifests.” It is also a form of afterlife, because after death, every being’s consciousness “re-expands into the luminiferity.” If all that sounds weird, it’s because it totally is.
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The luminiferity has been part of the story from book one, but it is explored and explained in greater detail in book two, Azura Ghost, when Hansen introduces us to the Graves. The Graves are Abriss Cetre’s special fighters, physically altered and trained to be able to send their consciousness through the luminiferity into Proxies, bio-mechanical bodies, which they can use to fight while their own bodies remain safely stored and protected elsewhere. One of these special fighters is Caiden’s childhood friend Leta who is uniquely skilled and adept at navigating and manipulating this domain, and the descriptions of the luminiferity as experienced by Leta are some of the most beautiful and haunting passages in Ethera Grave:
“Her consciousness expanded toward the luminiferity, in which she was shredded down to a spark of her quintessential spirit, a glimmer in the vastness of being. Space became nonlocal. Time layered into harmonies and spirals. The whole of existence was a strange type of music, familiar to Leta after more than a decade trained to access it, to listen, to play along.”
Leta, and her luminiferous abilities, play a crucial role in Ethera Grave, and so does the luminiferity’s function as an afterlife where an individual’s consciousness can survive after the body has died. While most can only keep their consciousness intact for a short period of time after death, the ancient beings called “the Graven” can exist in the luminiferity for much longer and are also able to use the luminiferity to manipulate and alter the physical world. Azura, one of these Graven entities, and Caiden’s companion since Nophek Gloss, is capable of this, her powers captured by Hansen in this gorgeous passage:
“Azura cascaded into the rooms. Her luminiferous motion folded and unfolded orders of reality. Blooms opened, vines creaked, power modules were shaken…..Azura was a thing of too many wings: pinions of space fluttered, microvariations of reality feathering the room.”
It is also in, and through, the luminiferity that we meet Ethera, the Graven entity that is revealed to be the driving force behind Abriss’s quest to destroy the multiverse and absorb all other universes into Unity. One of the many scenes in Ethera Grave that took my breath away is a fight scene where Leta glimpses Ethera as a presence surrounding Abriss: “With her arrival emerged something luminiferous. Similar to Azura: powerful and latent under the skin of the physical world like a massive creature beneath a lake, riffling the surface as it swam.”
While much of the action in Ethera Grave plays out in the physical world, the luminiferity, in all its dizzying glory, is crucial to the plot with many of the most devastating battles and confrontations playing out in this spiritual domain. The luminiferity is also where a group of ancient and immensely powerful Graven beings are brought together in an encounter that reverberates through time and space, luminiferity and multiverse.
Ethera Grave is a book to savor. Hansen’s writing is densely packed with visually stunning imagery and intricately woven world-building and, of course, there is much to love about it apart from the luminiferity. There’s the cast of complex and conflicted characters that are allowed to grow and change as they learn from their mistakes; Hansen’s fluid and inventive prose; and the way these books explore neurodiversity, gender fluidity, and the sometimes fractured relationship between a person’s mind and their body. (And then I haven’t even mentioned how much I love Hansen’s descriptions of food, or how much I adore C, Caiden’s fierce nophek—a beast/pet/mount.)
But what truly sets Ethera Grave apart for me is the impressive scope of Hansen’s imagination, and her willingness to expand her story and her multiverse into the weird and wonderful realm of the luminiferity. It has made Ethera Grave one of my favorite science fiction reads in recent years, and it’s a book, and a series I would recommend to anyone who loves deep, and deeply strange, science fiction.
Ethera Grave is out now from Hachette Book Group.