This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Neom will be released on November 9, 2022.
Lavie Tidhar is a name that has popped up several times in my short fiction reading—I’ve read a few of his stories, and I have a collection he edited on my shelf—but while I knew he’d also written novels that had garnered lots of positive reviews, none were the sort of books that genre fans constantly push to my attention, and his longer work had languished on the “read eventually” pile. But when I saw he was writing a standalone novel in the world of Central Station, I decided to request the ARC of Neom and try his extended work for myself.
To be clear, Neom is not especially extended. I don’t have access to an official word count, but it’s only a couple hundred Kindle locations longer than works marketed as novellas, and I’d be surprised if it hit 50,000 words. But compact size does not mean a compact cast, and Neom delivers at least seven perspective characters who find themselves pulled in to a dangerous quest in a far-future Arabia dotted with dangerous relics from robot wars and terrorartists.
Despite robot wars and an audacious science fiction setting that currently exists only in the dreams of a Saudi prince, the storytelling in Neom resembles mythology much more closely than thriller. The perspective always seems to come from over the characters’ shoulders more than in their heads, and the character whose quest ultimately becomes the focal point doesn’t even appear for several chapters. It’s a short novel, but it’s simultaneously a story that takes its time, letting the reader experience the world and the lives of several characters on its periphery instead of rushing toward a central plot.
If the tale has a lead, it’s a battered robot, veteran of countless conflicts in which its hand was forced to violence by its human creators. And the tale’s heart is undoubtedly a love story, of facing down dangers of staggering scale in order to reunite with a long-separated companion. But this is a novel that’s just as interested in the stories at the margins of the world as it is the ones that could possibly end it, with the wild Pokémon at a home for digital refugees given as much screen time as the cosmic horrors lurking beyond the Oort Cloud. And while I tend to dislike books that bury the story in mountains of extraneous lore, Neom doesn’t feel like a book that’s trying to show off all the details of the universe. In fact, some of the world’s most influential hubs (like Central Station) are almost entirely ignored. For all the mythic stylings and AI leads, it’s a very human story, about personal struggles—small and large—in a radically transformed world.
As someone who prefers a tighter character focus and a more contemporary style, I could honestly read this far in my own review and assume I wouldn’t like this book. I’ve already talked about struggling with too much time spent on worldbuilding, and the slight detachment from the characters paired with an elevated, mythic style sure sounds like just what I bounced off when Ursula Le Guin was doing it in the Earthsea series. But there’s something about the execution that just drew me to Neom. Surely one element is just the quality of the prose, and the short novel length kept the narration style from overstaying its welcome. But it’s not like there aren’t other short works with stylistic similarities that I’ve disliked. Perhaps it’s as simple as eschewing the epic hero in favor of smaller, more relatable stories—opening with a woman from a poor district working three or four part-time jobs, and never losing that small-scale feel even when the world itself is in danger. But whatever it is, I liked Neom a lot. I won’t say that every single perspective was jaw-dropping, and I’m not sure there’s a one that’s going to anchor itself in my mind and not let go. But it’s a beautiful and touching tapestry, certainly among my favorites of the year.
Recommended if you like: future myth, literary sci-fi.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Indie Press, and it’s also Published in 2022, contains No Ifs Ands Or Buts, has a Non-human Protagonist and Features Mental Health.
Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.