Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Künsken, The House of Styx (2021)

Derek Künsken, The House of Styx (Venus Ascendant book #1). Rebellion Publishing, 2021. Pp. 608. ISBN 978-1-78108-805-0. $27.99.

Reviewed by Lisa Timpf

Set in 2255 C.E., The House of Styx provides an intriguing view of what a human colony on—or rather, above—Venus might look like a couple of centuries into the future. The novel, slated to be the first in the Venus Ascendant series, is set 250 years before Künsken’s The Quantum Magician. The House of Styx revolves around the D’Aquillon family. George-Étienne D’Aquillon, his sons Jean-Eudes and Pascal, and his grandson Alexis live on the Causapscal des Profondeurs, a habitat fashioned, as are many of the living places in Venus’s clouds, within one of the Venusian cloud-dwelling plants called trawlers.

The D’Aquillons eke out a precarious existence as coureurs des vents, or wind runners. The name is a play on the historical coureurs des bois, or runners of the woods, as the early French-Canadian traders were known. The French connection is apt. In The House of Styx, the Venusian colony was established by Canada’s Province of Québec, and many of the settlers emigrated from la belle province. Two other members of the D’Aquillon family, George-Étienne’s daughter Marthe and son Émile, live in the higher levels of Venus’ atmosphere, along with the main colony flotilla. Marthe serves as the family’s representative on the government body, l’Assemblée.

Age 27 at the outset of the book, Jean-Eudes performs many essential duties around the family habitat. His brother Pascal can’t imagine life without him. But Jean-Eudes almost didn’t come to be. When he was still in the womb, testing revealed that he had Down Syndrome. The government put forth an ultimatum to George-Étienne and his wife Jeanne-Manse: if they opted to proceed with the pregnancy rather than terminating it, the government would provide no medical support for the child throughout his lifetime.

The government’s rationale was that a Down Syndrome child would put strain on the colony’s limited resources. The D’Aquillons opted to proceed with the pregnancy, and the colony’s position on this matter and others embittered George-Étienne, leaving him sour on the government. The novel makes a point of noting that Jean-Eudes is the only Down Syndrome individual in the colony, leaving us to wonder whether other colonists were faced with the same ultimatum, and chose differently.

Because of the rift with the government, George-Étienne chose the life of the coureur des vents, which meant living at some distance from the bulk of the colony. The D’Aquillons earn a living by using the trawlers to produce oxygen and water, and by collecting heavy metals from volcanic ash at the lower cloud levels. This lifestyle requires, at times, living far from the main flotilla, and it was at one of the times that there was a wide separation from the main flotilla that Jeanne-Manse died as a result of an injury, being too far from medical attention to be saved. Jeanne-Manse’s death wasn’t the only loss endured by the D’Aquillons. George-Étienne’s daughter Chloé and her husband Mathurin disappeared during a Venusian storm, never to be seen again. An incident as the novel opens gives the reader underscores how dangerous life on Venus can be, and the day to day hazards that face the colonists. And yet, Pascal, one of the first characters we meet, is completely at home in the clouds. Having been born on Venus, he feels that it is where he belongs.

Though Venus is a harsh host, those willing to brave her perils can sometimes access great rewards. When Pascal and his father fly an ancient bathyscaphe to the planet’s surface, they make an astonishing discovery. They find what appears to be a wormhole in space, through which some unknown civilization has sent probes that still remain in a spot that is difficult—but not impossible—to access. Rather than sharing the discovery with the government, who will, in all likelihood, snatch it from under them, George-Étienne and Pascal decide to exploit their find without informing the authorities. To do this, they need some outside expertise, so they forge an alliance with two other families. This unified group is referred to as the House of Styx. The D’Aquillons and their allies develop an elaborate plan, and in the concluding chapters of the book, we learn whether it will come to fruition, and at what cost.

Throughout the novel, Künsken provides us with characters we can cheer for. The D’Aquillons are underdogs by virtue of their status as coureurs des vents, scratching out a living as best they can. Within the family, each individual is distinct, with their own traits and flaws, yet each is likeable in their own way. Tensions between some of the characters—Émile and Marthe, and Émile and George-Étienne, in particular—add to the suspense as we wonder what course of action characters will take as a result of their disagreements.

Künsken’s choice to give the main characters Quebecois origins adds color, as he weaves Quebecois expressions and terms into the story.

The House of Styx provides an appreciation of the technological challenges of life in the clouds of Venus. Künsken builds in detail about the various habitats, the way of life, and transportation methods. He also demonstrates the perils posed by the planet’s environment, from electrical storms to sulfuric acid rain. When entering the habitat after being outside, colonists must go through an elaborate process to neutralize the sulfuric acid rain on their survival suits and helmets, and even a small hole in a survival suit can result in a painful skin burn. Even the dynamics of flying with wing-packs and landing maneuvers are depicted in some detail, and when Pascal and George-Étienne visit the Venusian surface in the bathyscaphe, Pascal makes repeated notations of the atmospheric pressure and the temperature, demonstrating the importance of keeping those parameters within survivable ranges.

In addition to building a convincing physical world, Künsken portrays the sociological and economic aspects of the Venusian colony in an interesting and believable way. Within The House of Styx, characters of various sexual orientations are portrayed and same-sex relationships are accepted matter-of-factly: Marthe, when contemplating the possibility of suggesting that her younger brother Pascal come up to spend time in the upper layers, notes: “…she could look after Pascal. Introduce him to some girls. Or boys. Whatever.”

Pascal, at sixteen years of age, feels at odds with his physical self—for example, he can’t tolerate the feel of stubble on his face, and is driven by the need to scrape it off each morning, not feeling comfortable in his body until he does so. With Marthe’s help, he comes to realize the reason: though he was born into a male body, he identifies more strongly as female. Marthe helps him prepare to take the first steps toward transitioning.

Künsken portrays a colonial government that operates in theory with the best interests of the colony at heart, but the politicians involved are not above pettiness, intrigue, and politicking. In this particular version of the future, the banks continue to wield a lot of power. On Venus, for example, the Bank of Pallas has many members of the colony at their mercy due to indebtedness. Künsken also posits the existence of a “black market” or underground economy, a fact which comes in handy for the D’Aquillon family, given their preference not to deal with the government unless they have to.

Because of Venus’ distance from Earth and the high cost of transportation, many commodities like metal and medication are scarce. This means that hard decisions must sometimes be made. For example, the hospital denies treatment to Émile’s girlfriend Thérèse because she has engaged in self-harm in the past, and drawn down on resources that the hospital feels should be applied to others. With this example and that of Jean-Eudes, Künsken prompts us to think about what sorts of decisions societies in similar situations—colonies dealing with limited resources, reliant on exports from Earth for many of their critical items—might make in the future.

The author illustrates some of the psychological challenges of being part of a colonizing force on a different planet, especially one with a climate so inherently hostile toward human life. While Pascal feels completely at home in the clouds, some of the other colonists experience a sense of alienation. This is accentuated by the fact that the planet’s inimical environment makes it seem as though their new world is conspiring against them, and seeking any possible opportunity to get rid of the human interlopers.

Some of the colonists turn to alcohol and drugs to deal with this sense of alienation. Thérèse is obsessed with the desire to feel more at one with Venus, and engages in risky behaviours such as using acid to etch her skin or breathing unfiltered air to try to achieve a connection with the planet, as though Venus were a god that needed to be placated.

Whether dealing with the physical realities or the imagined social structure of the colony, The House of Styx delivers a suitable level of detail to build plausibility, without being overwhelming or intrusive. Though the book is a work of imagination, it feels very real, while at the same time delivering a suspenseful story. Gripping, engaging, and imaginative, The House of Styx is well worth the read.

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