Axiom’s End is one of the few books I encountered in my Hugo reading that wasn’t really on my radar before its nomination. And it wasn’t directly nominated as a top book in itself, but it was cited in Lindsay Ellis’ nomination for The Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Of course, it’s not surprising that debut authors may take longer to generate the kind of hype you see from established stars, but in the case of Axiom’s End, I knew almost nothing.
When I picked up my library, the quotes on the dust jacket were enough to tell me to expect first contact—encouraging, since I enjoy first contact—but that first contact was entwined in a larger Bush Era sci-fi/conspiracy thriller. Cora, the lead, is working temp jobs while trying to escape the shadow of her infamous, estranged father, who has fled the country after leaking a document proving that the United States government is covering up contact with an alien species. But when one of the aliens shows up at her house, it sparks a harrowing flight that will put her in the middle of an extraterrestrial political squabble just as much as a domestic one. And both may have life-or-death stakes.
I have long been on the record about disliking thrillers just as much as I enjoy first contact, so I’d hoped for a story that pushed past the standard thriller plot or had an intriguing enough first contact storyline to hook me regardless. Unfortunately, Axiom’s End delivered neither. As a thriller, it certainly isn’t bad—the prose never rises above average, but Ellis keeps the pacing quick and times revelations of new dangers or discoveries so as to avoid plot lulls. But there’s also nothing about the novel that really stands out from the crowd. None of the characters, domestic or extraterrestrial, feel especially noteworthy, and the underlying drama surrounding the document leaks never quite makes the kind of difference it seems intended to make. Her father’s notoriety puts Cora on a first-name basis with a CIA agent and impacts her family in different ways, but it’s not enough to feel really cohesive with the first contact plot.
And the first contact plot doesn’t hit any of the elements that make first contact so interesting. The characters muse at length about the alienness of the aliens, but that doesn’t always comport with what we see. We’re told about fears that seem at odds with actions, and the main extraterrestrial character’s inhumanity comes down in large part to an admittedly extreme consequentialism and community orientation. Furthermore, after the story leads with insurmountable communication problems, it delivers a quick technological solution that essentially sidelines the obstacle for the duration of the novel.
Overall, the smooth pacing and constant danger are probably enough for readers who especially enjoy sci-fi thrillers. But it’s not an exceptional example of the subgenre, and so many aspects of the story—plot, prose, characters, first contact—come out as merely passable. It’s not a bad book, but I admit that I don’t understand the award nomination.
Recommend if you like: snappy sci-fi thrillers with a dose of Bush Era politics.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for First Contact, and it’s also a Book Club book and a Debut.
Overall rating: 12 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.