Book Review: The House of Styx by Derek Künsken

Genre: Sci-Fi
Publishing Info: Rebellion (2020)
Pages: 500

Publisher’s Summary:
Life can exist anywhere. And anywhere there is life, there is home.

In the swirling clouds of Venus, the families of la colonie live on floating plant-like trawlers, salvaging what they can in the fierce acid rain and crackling storms. Outside is dangerous, but humankind’s hold on the planet is fragile and they spend most of their days simply surviving.

But Venus carries its own secrets, too. In the depths, there is a wind that shouldn’t exist.

And the House of Styx wants to harness it.

The House of Styx (Rebellion/NetGalley, 2020)

My thanks for this post go to Rebellion Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with the eBook version of this novel in return for an honest review.

The richness and quality in world-building in this science-fiction novel makes the setting, cultures and characters featured in The House of Styx very strong for the genre, and would be a strong start to a potential series.

The most noticeable quality about The House of Styx is the incredibly detailed descriptions throughout. Author Derek Künsken has communicated with experts from various scientific fields and the end result is a knowledge base that goes above and beyond any other science-fiction book I have read. Every action a character undertakes, every scientific tool they use, every paragraph about the clouds and surface of Venus, are fleshed out with detailed jargon. Whether this will be appreciated ultimately depends on the preference of the reader. For readers like myself, who love detailed descriptions, this book will be seen as such a vast and fleshed out world created under the pen of the author, the likes of which are rarely undertaken. If a casual reader picks this up though, this could blunt their enjoyment of the novel as the description at times threatens to slow down the pacing of the central narrative. This book has been read during the lockdown of the United Kingdom down to COVID-19, which has impacted on how often I read. As a result, some descriptions were hard to break down and get through, but in general I greatly appreciated how it provided such a clear mental image about the harsh Venusian environment and how the lives of the settlers struggling to survive are impacted by it.

The narrative as a whole has some great moments but doesn’t always feel focused. The emphasis is largely on the D’Aquillons, a family of settlers originating from Canada. They are largely independent from the Banks and Federations that govern life on Venus as the result of a highly personal disagreement. Scouting the surface of Venus for potential minerals that they can sell, they discover an impossible wind going into a cave, and what they discover could completely change both their fortunes and Mankind’s scientific knowledge base. The build-up to and the revelation of the discovery was paced and written very well – yet the final third of the novel does not go in the direction that I was expecting. Instead of further exploring this unbelievable discovery, the family and some acquaintances come up with a plan to completely go off the grid from those governing society. It certainly still provides some exciting moments, including one sequence that is the most intense of the novel, but almost certainly hints that this is the first in a book series that continues to follow the D’Aquillons, the House of Styx and the rest of Venusian society.

At certain points, the central narrative takes a back seat, as the author introduces various strands of Venusian society in a way that instantly creates intrigue. The most impactful of these introductions is on those who have a spiritual interest in Venus itself, treating the planet’s toxic atmosphere as a deity trying to reach out to them. This cult-like following is made up of artists, individuals who will stylishly let Venus make its mark on them, only to ultimately suffer for their devotion. I found this a brilliant side-plot away from the majority of the D’Aquillons and certainly added to the richness of the world created by the detailed descriptions. Readers briefly are introduced to the Bank of Pallas as well as allusions to the other Banks who control Venusian society. They act as antagonists of the novel in their desire to break down and retrieve the vast majority of minerals on Venus for their profits, yet there is light and shade in the portrayal of senior members of the Banks, which makes for a much more realistic and fleshed-out characterisation, as opposed to the standard villainous overseer type.

The characterisation of the D’Aquillons and allies who combine to become the House of Styx, are solidly written. A couple of these are brilliantly done, and really stand out when the individuals in question are narrating the chapters. The development of Pascal(e) throughout the novel is very powerful and I have to commend the author for tackling the themes of their story; the like of which is rarely done, let alone to this quality, in the science-fiction genre. Émile D’Aquillon has the most harrowing arc and chapters that follow his traumas are utterly engrossing; I will go as far to say that he is the best written character in a book with many solid ones. The majority of the other characters are written quite well, but it doesn’t feel that I know who they are as well as with Pascale and Émile; a potential sequel could really flesh the other characters out. As a whole though, the characterisation is on point and varied enough to make the majority of them stand out as individuals.

The House of Styx has a quality in its writing style, particularly in descriptive sections, that go far and above the standard for the science-fiction genre. Occasionally this does disrupt the pacing and the prominence of the narrative, but the richness of the world that the author has created in a few hundred pages means that any sequel produced will be snatched up by readers, myself included.

Star Rating: 4/5

The House of Styx will be available on eBook on 20 August 2020 and in hardback 13 April 2021.

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The next book to be reviewed will be Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

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