I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Chillingly grim but totally fascinating. If I were asked to sum up my experience with Ymir in five words, these would be the perfect choice: this novel’s blurb likens it to a spacefaring version of Beowulf, and there are indeed some connections to that famous epic (including a request for a monster’s arm as a trophy), but Ymir is very much its own story, and a compelling – if sometimes harsh – one.
The alien planet of Ymir is a frozen, forbidding wasteland in which humanity (or rather a genetically modified branch of it) toils by mining its resources under the aegis of the Company, a ruthless cartel which grinds its employees with little or no regards for their rights or comforts, and quashes any attempt at rebellion with swift brutality. But the Company’s profit is threatened by grendels, alien constructs which are part flesh and part cybernetic components: a recent attack from a grendel in the depths of a mine cost the Company a number of workers and, far worse from their point of view, a stop to the extraction activities, so Yorick, the best grendel hunter in their employ, is dispatched to Ymir to solve the problem.
Yorick was kept in torpor (a sort of cold-storage suspended animation the Company employs to make its assets last longer, among other uses) for a long time, and once awakened he’s not happy to be returned to his home planet, from which he’s been absent for a subjective time of ten years, while on the world twenty have effectively elapsed. The hunter is considered a traitor on his home world, since he joined the ranks of the Company and committed some serious atrocities in their employ, but what’s worse he has some huge unfinished business to deal with: before he left he violently clashed with his brother Thello, who shot him with a needle gun taking away the lower half of Yorick’s face, which has since then been replaced by a prosthesis (warning: this is something of a gross detail in the narrative).
The timing for the hunt could not be worse, however, because a widespread rebellion against the Company is brewing under the icy surface of the planet, and Thello might be at the center of it, forcing Yorick to deal with the conflicting emotions generated by his past associations and his present duties: the road he finds himself traveling is fraught with dangers, and they don’t come only from the grendel’s threat…
‘Fascinating’ was the word I first used for this novel, and it is indeed despite its bleakness, which starts with the descriptions of Ymir, where darkness and ice extend as far as the eye can see, taking their toll on the miners and reflecting in their living spaces, where there is almost no respite from the harshness of the land. The workers are just as hard and unforgiving as the environment they live in, the physical changes wrought on them from generations turning them into creatures as alien as the place they live in: there are several flashbacks from Yorick as he recalls his and Thello’s childhood, marred by the lack of acceptance from their peers – who called them half-breeds – and by their mother’s abusive behavior, a consequence of her though living and working conditions. Young Yorick wanted nothing else but to escape from Ymir, taking Thello with him, while his younger brother felt stronger ties with the place and its people, and that difference was the spark that ultimately led to their final, bloody encounter.
Still, family ties can exert a strong pull on Yorick, and from the start we see him torn between love and hate for Thello and the planet were they were born: getting to know Yorick, and connecting with him as a character, is the most difficult part of the book, because he’s not an easy or relatable figure. Past actions have branded him a monster, and the old disfigurement added to the image, but what makes Yorick such a anti-hero is his self-destructive attitude: we see him literally wallowing in recreative drugs or in performance-enhancing drugs, and it’s clear that what’s left under that mountain of self abuse is a broken individual with little hope and almost no dreams – only nightmares. The skilled, heartless hunter is nothing but a shell under which the damaged child still dwells:
He takes his space like a gas giant, making his body as big as he can. […] Inside, when nobody can see him, he always makes himself small.
What ultimately saves Yorick from being a despicable character (and I assure you that looking past that constantly drugged fog is NOT easy…) is his desire to re-establish a bond with Thello, to still try and save him as he was unable to in the past. I’m sorry I can’t say more because I risk treading on spoiler territory, but Yorick’s attempt at a redemption arc is what manages to bring to the surface what little humanity is left in him. And this is enough.
Ymir might not be the easiest book to read, but it offers such a compelling narrative that it will prove quite difficult to set aside.