Reviews

Science Fiction Novel Review: The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

I didn’t see too much hype for Micaiah Johnson’s debut–although it was enough to push my library hold to five months–but what it lacked in quantity, it made up for in quality. Every single review I saw for The Space Between Worlds raves about it. I was hoping to read it before award nomination season ended, but though I ended up getting it late, I’m very glad I got it.

The Space Between Worlds is set in a far future after the discovery of travel between parallel universes. The only catch is that no one can travel to a parallel world in which their counterpart is alive. Cara, our heroine, grew up in a broken home in one of the poorest cities we see and has learned how to survive at all costs. But her counterparts haven’t, and being dead in over 370 other worlds makes Cara the ideal candidate for a job traversing universes to bring back intelligence about ways her world could go. But when one job goes wrong, Cara is thrown into a fight for power far beyond what she signed up for.

It’s a sci-fi thriller premise, but it’s a really intriguing sci-fi thriller premise. But The Space Between Worlds goes far beyond the typical thriller, with several excellent characters and twice the depth. The story is narrated in first-person, telling of Cara’s present with plenty of reminiscence to the past traumas that have shaped her life to this point, and her character is compelling enough to demand attention from the first chapter. Couple that with an interesting premise and a lot of uncertainty about exactly where the plot is going, and the first half of the book went by in what felt like no time at all.

A little bit past the halfway point, however, I felt things starting to falter. And for those who love thrillers, this may not be a problem at all. But the reason I don’t spend a lot of time in that subgenre is that the first half is often fascinating, but once the reader gets enough information about what’s going on, all that’s left is a series of action sequences that feel hollow and perfunctory. I was worried that’s where The Space Between Worlds would go. I shouldn’t have worried.

While there are a few reveals that are pretty easy to see coming, and while there is indeed plenty of action in the back half of the story, Johnson never takes the easy road. The world she’s created is complicated, and rather than sending her plot to a place that feels satisfying but ignores deeper issues, she steers the story in a direction that incorporates every bit of nuance. Racism and classism are rampant. Resources are scarce. Her characters desire survival, or power, or respect, or the good of others. It’s not a situation that admits of a simple solution, and so she digs that extra layer for a resolution that respects every bit of the story she’s created, and it creates an ending that doesn’t just close the story but really stands out as exceptional.

Despite the book coming in at just over 300 pages, Johnson paints several characters with real depth. First person narratives can often deliver one character that feels real and a flat supporting cast. And while a couple significant side characters do remain flat, Cara’s mentor Jean feels solidly three-dimensional, and her step-sister Esther and former lover and abuser Nik Nik rival the heroine in their full realization. Combine the characters and plot with the exploration of choices and their echoes through the world, plus the expressions of power in different social classes, and you have the recipe for an absolutely stunning debut.

Recommended if you like: sci-fi thrillers with depth, nuanced characters, quality social commentary.

Can I use it for BingoThis is the drawback of themed boards. While The Space Between Worlds clearly fits the Debut, New-to-You, Trans/Nonbinary, and First Person squares of the 2021 Fantasy Bingo board, I don’t believe it fits the hard mode versions of any of the four. So, seeing as how it’s not a sequel, it will go on neither my hard mode nor my sequel card. But that doesn’t mean it can’t go on yours.

Overall Rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.

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