I’m torn. I don’t want to begin a discussion of author Jessica Reisman‘s wonderful debut novel by opening with the least appealing aspect. But I’m afraid I have no choice. This thing is so huge, and it’s the very first thing any prospective reader will notice when she picks up The Z Radiant. I just don’t see any way to address the matter other than mentioning it right up front, getting it out of the way, moving on: this book has perhaps the single worst cover ever put on a science fiction novel.
It’s an absolute shame, too, because the production value is quite high. The book is in lovely hardbound form. The quality of the binding is considerably higher than much of what one sees these days. It’s printed in the United States on permanent paper, set in 11 point Plantin typeface (which is lovely). It’s got a glossy, multi-hued cover and an identical glossy, multi-hued dustjacket. I delve so deeply into this description only to convince you to completely ignore the cover illustration of this otherwise excellent book. It’s truly atrocious, and has no relevance to the story at all. Perhaps, like many brilliant (in retrospect), hideous, style-dated covers on wonderful sci-fi books from previous decades, this cover may someday be looked back upon with fondness, garnering for itself the sort of sentimental cache currently reserved for Doris Piserchia, John Wyndham, or even Philip K. Dick covers from bygone eras. Have I convinced you to ignore the cover? Or at least, not to hold the cover against the interior? Good. Let’s get to the important part: the story.
The planet Nentesh lies in a region of space that becomes accessible to the rest of the humanity only once in a generation. The temporary, periodic opening of the wormhole – Ingress – brings trade goods, off-world technology, people, news. It also takes: locally-harvested phos, a bio-luminescent moss; and young people, eager to be away from their isolated, low-tech world and its social and political limitations. Leaving Nentesh during Ingress means leaving behind family and familiarity for decades, perhaps forever.
It’s against the backdrop of an upcoming Ingress and its attendant festival The Z Radiant is set. Impending decisions loom for all concerned; Swan must face all she left behind when she stayed on-planet over twenty years earlier; her lover Ula must come to terms with their changing relationship, and with her relationship to her own desert heritage; Ninuel, “disaffected little First Family flash-queen,” addicted to the mind-altering substance Z, whose best friend is an enormous dog conjured by her Z-drenched mind, must navigate the border between fantasy and reality; and Aren, abandoned as a baby during the previous Ingress, must discover who and what he is before it’s too late for them all.
Reisman’s sensuous storytelling makes for intense immersion reading. She carefully orchestrates a wealth of description; the mood and flavor of every scene, every character, every landscape is drenched in intricate detail. There’s more nuance here than one usually finds in a story that eventually boils to such grueling action. True, the storyline may come to more of a slow boil than rush to an immediate roil, but as with many good books, the journey is as meaningful as the end. Being swept along by The Z Radiant is like being swept along by a river with deep currents; sometimes you float along the warm surface amid the shimmer of light glancing from the shallows, and other times you feel the cold gripping your legs, leaving you gasping for breath.
(Five Star, 2004)