For the first round of this year’s Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC2), my team has been assigned 28 books to ultimately whittle down to three semifinalists. To that end, we have further divided our batch so that each judge will be assigned 11 or 12 books to scout for the rest of the team. Because this is the first round, many of those books will be DNFs. But today is not a day for DNFs—G.S. Jennsen’s Exin Ex Machina grabbed me from the start and didn’t let go.
Exin Ex Machina takes place on a distant planet controlled by a biosynthetic race of immortals. So when our heroine wakes up in an alley missing all memory of her past life, it’s about as close to death as they come. And when the group of revolutionaries she joins begin to notice loved ones disappearing without a trace, it sets them after a secret that those in power will stop at nothing to protect.
The disappearances and the lead’s missing memory serve as twin hooks that make it easy to invest in the story, and the fluid prose and quick pacing don’t give many opportunities for that investment to dwindle. There’s plenty of danger from the get-go, with action sequences sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative, and the characters almost all have the kind of relatable motivations that make them easy to cheer for. And if you look close, there are some fascinating questions about memory and the nature of identity underneath all the thrills.
There were a couple aspects of the story that didn’t totally work for me, one structural and one largely a matter of preference. The latter was simply how quickly things happened. Characters were quick to jump into bed with each other, or get into knockdown, drag-out arguments, or decide to undertake wildly dangerous missions, and I would’ve liked to see a little bit more time dedicated to setup. I can’t say any of the decisions were particularly out of character, and they certainly kept the pace moving, but I prefer a little more development of character psychology over that quick, thriller pace. On the structural side, the narrative presented so many points-of-view that it was always easy to tell when characters were being forthright and when they were hiding something. On the plus side, this humanized the villains and prevented them from being power-hungry mustache-twirlers. But there were times when the narrative seemed to be reaching for suspense about a particular character decision, only to be undercut by a point-of-view section that gave so much insight as to make the decision obvious.
But those complaints don’t stop Exin Ex Machina from being a really fun ride. Uncovering secrets tends to hook me pretty quickly, and the ones here were teased just enough to keep me turning the pages, before closing with a reveal that simultaneously satisfies and opens up more questions that it answers. Asterion Noir is very much a trilogy, and the story doesn’t end here, but the first book gives enough to make it worth your while. It’s a quick, fun plot with likable characters and enough layers to feel like its own book while also setting up the story left to come.
Recommended if you like: action-packed tales about uncovering the secrets of the powerful.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for No Ifs Ands or Buts and Author Using Initials, and it’s also Self-Published, featuring a Non-human Protagonist and a Revolution or Rebellion.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC Score: I will be recommending Exin Ex Machina as a quarterfinalist, but I have four other teammates helping me through 28 books, so that recommendation does not come with a guarantee of advancement. If it does become one of our quarterfinalists, it will come with a score of 7.5/10 from me, with a full team score to be determined as others give it a read.