Rich Horton Reviews The House of Styx by Derek Künsken

The House of Styx, Derek Künsken (Solaris 978-1786183200, $8.99, eb,) August 2020. (Solaris 978-1781088050, 608pp, $27.99, hc) April 2021.

One of the most notable aspects of Derek Künsken’s short work to date has been a fascination with rigorous worldbuilding, of­ten featuring the extreme, and the politics that often result from adaptation to said environments. These aspects are central to his new novel, The House of Styx, first in his Venus Ascendant series (which is set in the universe of his previous novels The Quantum Magician and The Quantum Garden). The House of Styx is set entirely on a fairly near-future Venus, which has been precariously colonized by people from Québec, and centers on the struggles of the D’Aquillon family. The father, George-Étienne, emigrated from Québec, but his children, Jean- Eudes, Pascal, Marthe, and Émile, were born on Venus. Their mother Marie and their sister Chloé have died before the action of the novel begins – a constant reminder of the hostile Venus environment. Pa lives in a trawler habitat in the depths of the planet’s clouds, scraping out a living with the help of Jean-Eudes, Pascal, and Chloé’s son, and retains animosity towards the government of la colonie be­cause they didn’t approve of him and Marie keeping Jean-Eudes, due to his Down’s Syndrome. Marthe and Émile live in the upper clouds with the main part of the colony. Marthe is there as the family’s repre­sentative in the colony’s government, while Émile is escaping what he sees as his father’s destructive attitudes. These characters are interesting, though I’d say that the sometimes almost soap-opera-ish set of issues they face isn’t as well-handled as the SFnal or the political parts of the book.

On the surface, George-Étienne and Pascal make an astonishing discovery – a cave that seems to lead directly (presumably via wormhole) to another solar system, which sets in place the main action: the D’Aquillons try to keep the discovery secret in the hopes of both making their family’s fortune and allowing la colonie to eventually escape their crushing debt to the Bank of Pallas. The colony’s leaders – who seem to be corruptly in cahoots with the bank’s representatives (though there are political complexities involved) – sense that something is go­ing on, and put different sorts of pressure on Marthe, Émile, and George-Étienne. All this is entangled with the family’s personal issues. Marthe and Émile both have terrible taste in lovers, and Émile in particular is a screwup – not much of a worker, a drunk, a failed poet, and involved in a self-destructive group of young adults, given to stunts like purposely scarring themselves with sulfuric acid from the atmosphere. Pascal, the most sympathetic character, has a secret, to do with their personal identity. And Pascal is also, at 17, soon involved in their first love affair, with a young man of another family, who has been roped in to help the D’Aquillons with their discovery.

The House of Styx offers multiple pleasures – the pure sense of wonder of the central discovery; the extremely well-worked out details of how to live on Venus, of the Venusian life-forms, of the ways to travel through the clouds. The political maneu­verings are involving, and the Bank representatives provide a suitable villain. The personal struggles are perhaps a bit less convincing – Pascal is an affecting character, and Marthe is fascinating and strong, but Émile’s childishness gets a bit tiresome and feels forced. The prose is workable, and nicely flavored with Quebecois French, but it rarely sings. SF readers of a certain bent, like me, will find the engineering aspects intriguing – and important to both the plot and the worldbuilding. And there is enough sheer adventure – flying through the clouds, a struggle to rescue someone from a terrible storm, an attempt to steal (or to prevent the theft, depending on one’s POV) of an entire habitat – to satisfy most anyone.

This is the first in a series and it certainly doesn’t resolve all of the questions it poses, coming to a logical stopping point but leaving us not knowing if the D’Aquillons will be successful, the true nature of their wonderful discovery, or even how the various personal problems will sort out. It bids well to be a true saga – there is tragedy and triumph already in this book, and I’m sure there’s more of both to come. Künsken has, to my mind, already established a place as one of the best pure “hard science” writers of the current generation, and this book is further evidence of that.

Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.

This review and more like it in the November 2020 issue of Locus.

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