An empire set in the stars...

I often complain how I never ever win any sort of raffle or giveaway, but I finally was selected as a winner for a Discord giveaway and wanted to read my prize right away. 

4/5 Some rough edges and a somewhat abrupt end sequence held things back for me somewhat, but I ultimately found myself quite impressed with this book which serves as a strong debut for this new indie author as well as a promising start to this dark scifi series.

NOTE: I want to mention that I won a paperback copy of this book as part of a giveaway. I was not specifically asked to write a review (though that's always nice thing to do, especially when you like the book) and my opinion of this book is not influenced by receiving a free copy as part of this giveaway from the author.

Although there is definitely a clear plotline driving things forward, I would actually say that the characters are the main focus of this narrative. The story is told across multiple POVs with Maximus serving as what I would essentially describe as the main character. He's a rather naïve young man who's been brought up in a life of relative privilege, but a series of moments where he starts to open his eyes to the world around him sets him down a path of trying to change things. Maximus is deeply emotional and quite flawed in some key ways which made him both an engaging and frustrating lead. He's joined by his childhood best friend, Ratchet, who doesn't have any chapters told from his perspective as far as I can recall, but is a central figure within the arcs of both Maximus and Kana. I enjoyed how the story explored the key ways in which Ratchet is both similar to and quite different from Maximus. I think out of the whole cast, he was probably my favorite due to how steadfast of a friend he is and how hard he works to balance doing everything he can for everyone in his life. Kana is a headstrong young woman that's part of the lower caste and I quickly found myself enjoying her characterization as well. She can be a bit of a hothead sometimes, but her more endearing qualities ultimately won out for me. Arex doesn't have too many chapters told from his perspective, but he's another really interesting figure. I think he has by far the most compelling backstory and I enjoyed how the little nuggets we're given offered crucial context into his actions and motivations. There is still a great deal that we don't know about him though, so I hope his character is further explored down the road. Perxes and Pentalux are the other two characters that we follow, albeit quite briefly. Pantalux is a fascinating person and I found myself hooked on all of the mysteries of his past that Maximus slowly uncovers. Perxes is the perfect kind of psychopath who ends up being far more integral to the main plot that I initially realized. His chapter is grotesque but very well done.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this novel is actually the world in which it is set. There's an interesting juxtaposition between how confined things feel on the ring world that this particularly story takes place on and the vastness of the greater universe which is really only alluded to here and there. This is one of those "humans have essentially destroyed Earth and must now head to the stars" type of setups, but what makes it super unique is the way that everything works on this new home for humanity. The society that is established is one filled with brutality and suffering. There is a fascinating caste system, though I will say that it took me a handful of chapters to understand that terms like "Phantom" or "Wraith" or "Dredge" were referencing social hierarchies/orders. Despite my initial confusion, I did find myself appreciating that we don't get all the information dumped on us all at once. I felt like the key details were revealed to me in the moment that I needed to understand them and that sort of slow drip approach is used in other aspects of the worldbuilding as well which gave the more expositional bits a much more seamless feeling. This is perhaps especially impressive given that there are all sorts of weird technologies present in this universe from the flying zephyrs to pulse firearms and even some awesome suits of body armor worn by this world's version of gladiators which are referred to as "Titans." Without getting too deep into spoilers, I will just say that there are a lot of crazy reveals that the characters unearth which deliver some great twists on not only the all-powerful Celestial class and the society they've crafted, but even the very mechanics of this ring world itself. It's all great stuff and I think that if you are someone who gets really hyped about worldbuilding, then this one is probably going to be a real treat for you. 

For probably the first 25% or so of the book, I wasn't entirely sure what this story was really about. We start out with a harrowing opening sequence followed by something slightly more wholesome and then get into setting the stage and introducing our players one by one. From the onset it's clear that this one is not for the squeamish. Skeffington's depictions of blood and gore is the stuff of nightmares and the more subtle forms of violence and oppression are no less disturbing. In contrast to that is a cast of characters that wear their hearts on their sleeve and speak with almost-melodramatic earnestness to one another, often in ways that are quite touching. It's a stark dichotomy that created a really distinct blend of tones which almost reminded me of an anime even though I wouldn't say there was anything too cartoonish about this book (so, maybe a gritty, live-action adaptation of an anime then?). The narrative itself also goes through some different phases. After the groundwork is set, there's a pseudo-mystery that unfolds as Maximus makes some important discoveries and forms some new friends as he attempts to use what he's learned for the betterment of the lower class. Things then evolve into a sort of slow-burn rebellion story where the main characters band together in an attempt to upend "the system." I kind of enjoyed this slower sort of buildup as it gave a generous amount of space for some meaningful character moments and important reveals to unfold though I also felt at times like it meandered a bit. 

The last several chapters suddenly kick into high gear in a way that kind of threw me off a bit. It all starts with a big moment that I wasn't really sure if I was supposed to be surprised by or not. It was unveiled as if it was meant to be quite shocking and is then retroactively explained, but I just sort of expected that this was where things were headed and would have preferred having a little more buildup to it up front since I think that would have been more dramatic. Things then escalate rapidly from there with a flurry of different events that all culminate into a somewhat tragic conclusion that isn't quite a cliffhanger, but does clearly lead into the next books in the series. I should note that there's nothing too out of left field aside from a romantic moment that I didn't feel was especially earned. There's no deus ex machina or anything, it's just that some of the more climactic moments felt a little rushed and the ending is definitely abrupt. I think a lot of people may take no issue for this at all. For me, a story's ending is a big factor in my enjoyment and while this one wasn't necessarily frustrating or unsatisfying, it also doesn't do much to offer a sense of closure or completion which is tough for me, especially when I am reading a new or new-to-me author.  

The first thing most people are probably going to notice about this book is it's striking cover. The wraparound artwork is stunning and packed with tons of tiny details while also rendering a handful of the main characters front and center in a rather glorious fashion. The dark, gritty style is also a great indication of the kind of story that can be found within the covers. On the inside, I found myself appreciating the minimalist scifi motif when it came to the chapter headings and font choices. I did feel like the margins were a little bit stingy though. It's not so bad that I had to damage the spine while reading, but the text definitely dives a little deeper into the middle than I typically prefer. The formatting choices also make this book deceptively long since there is a fair bit of text on each page, though I wouldn't necessarily say that it felt "crammed in." Apart from a very sweet dedication, there aren't really any additional trappings in the form of an Author's Note (Forward/Afterward) or Author Bio. The absence of these things is obviously not a negative, more so just an observation that there aren't too many frills surrounding the story itself. 

If you enjoy science fiction with intricate worldbuilding and compelling, emotionally expressive characters, then I would absolutely recommend that you give LOST SOULS a chance so long as you don't think you'd find darker, more violent content too upsetting. I, for one, will be keeping an eye on this author and series!

(+) The world Skeffington has crafted is something truly special, and it's clear that there is so much more of it left to discover. 
(+) The characters were all engaging in their own way and have some rather endearing interactions with one another. 
(+) Some intense action sequences.
(+) A fascinating juxtaposition between horrifyingly bloody violence and extremely earnest characters which created a rather unique tone.
(+) Really elegant delivery of the worldbuilding and backstories for certain characters.
(+) A stunning cover that I am quite please to have on my shelf.
(-) An abrupt ending with some moments that felt a little rushed in comparison to how deliberately the rest of the story unfolded.
(-) Some rough edges with specific bits of dialogue and plot/pacing.


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