Nethereal is the 2015 debut novel by Brian Niemeier, and it is one hell of a page turner.
First, some ethical disclosure: the author and I follow each other on Twitter, I am a frequent listener to a podcast that he co-hosts, and we are both part of the current Superversive and Pulp Revolution movements taking place within Sci-Fi/Fantasy. So there is absolutely a level of personal bias to this review that I want you to be aware of.
Now to business. Nethereal is the first book of the Soul Cycle, which is a Weird Space Opera/Horror setting. Now, by Weird, I mean WEIRD. Traditional physics have no place here and a combination of super science and magic are what propel space travel, which is under the monopolistic control of the Guild. Thrown into this is the pirate frigate Shibboleth, captained by Jaren Peregrine, the halfbreed last survivor of the Gen race (effectively Space Elves) hell-bent on revenge for the Guild's genocide of his people. He has two steersmen (magician/pilots): Nakvin, a beautiful, half-human woman with mysterious origins and Deim, a devoutly religious young man who's family has been helping Peregrine's for several generations. And there is Teg Cross, mercenary sociopath and Jeren's combat enforcer.
Misfortune leads them to a revolutionary group building a massive and unnerving exploration ship called the Exodus, which further misfortune causes it to travel to Hell during its maiden voyage.
Yes, actual Hell (at least Hell as described by Gen theology).
Then it gets weirder.
That's all I want to say about the plot, because a) I want to avoid spoilers and b) I could be here all day trying to explain what happens, there's so much of it.
I simply trying to explain what the book is is less effective than explaining what it is like. It is like Dune meets Firefly meets Outlaw Star meets Lovecraft meets Spelljammer meets Moby Dick meets the Inferno. It draws from a tremendous variety of influences and in doing so defies genre classification, though “Space Opera Horror” might be the closest you can get.
Despite the disparate influences (or maybe because of them), the setting is one of the strongest selling points for the book, and its is incredibly thought-out. The action escalates to grandiosity, and the villains rise to match the scale.
Its not a perfect book, though a lot of my criticisms are nitpicks and entirely subjective. Scene transitions sometimes feel rushed or lacking in cohesion. The prose is straightforward but feels like it lacks a little something to make it quotable. The same is true for the dialogue. They get the job done, but its not on the level of a master like Bradbury's narration or Herbert's quotability.
That doesn't mean that Neimeier can't get there. Nethereal is a very strong, imaginative debut propelled by a confident enthusiasm for its subject matter. Absolutely recommended, though the intentional weirdness won't be for everybody. Amazon's your best place to find it.