The Book That Made Me Think “This is What Sci-Fi is Supposed to Be”: Syzygy by J.K. Ullrich

Book Info

Title: Syzygy – The Complete Novel
Author: J.K. Ullrich
Links: Amazon | Goodreads
Series: Syzygy #1 – 6
Source: I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.*

Disclaimer: There may be (vague!) spoilers in my review of this novel. I will never reveal detailed accounts of the plot or spoil major twists in the story, but I will discuss other specific plot events if I feel that doing so is necessary to provide evidence for something in my review.

Note: This edition of Syzygy was an “omnibus” edition, meaning it contains all 6 Syzygy novels in one volume. My review will not discriminate between the separate novels, but will review the omnibus as a whole.

*Just a heads up, I loved this book more than I ever thought I would, so I’m going to spend most of this post gushing about how amazing it was — but I can guarantee you that I’m still being 100% truthful to how I really feel about it!

Synopsis

Omnibus Synopsis: A century after a genetic engineering disaster eradicates human life on Earth, two young rebels risk everything to save their struggling lunar outpost: Ash, reluctant champion of a DNA archive effort that runs dangerous missions back to Earth; and Skye, a cunning scavenger from a tribe of outcasts. Their fractious alliance reveals shocking truths concealed for generations and sparks one desperate hope for the future of their species.

Transient Phenomena (Book 1)* Synopsis: Ash was never supposed to visit Earth. After a genetic engineering catastrophe wiped out civilization, the survivors—inhabitants of a lunar mining colony—planned to rebuild on Mars. That was before a group of rebels seceded to the dark side of the moon, taking critical materials with them. Now conscripted teenagers scavenge the ruined third planet for species to use in terraforming. At fifteen, Ash is the best diver in a generation. But when tragedy strikes, he vows to end his colony’s dependence on its old homeworld at any cost.

Skye has never set foot on Earth. It’s not even visible from the moon’s far side, although the exiles’ mystic leader promises they will return home someday. Skye has discovered something that could realize this long-awaited dream, but she’s an outcast among outcasts, and no one will listen to her plan. To save her people, she might have to betray them.

Worlds collide when Ash and Skye meet, blurring the boundaries between enemies and allies, deception and truth. Their choices could preserve a future for humanity…or finally drive it to extinction.

*I included this additional synopsis for the first book in the series because I thought it provided an interesting supplemental overview to what the series is about. The Goodreads page for the first book as a standalone is linked. Synopses for the other five books in the series can be found on Goodreads here: II, III, IV, V, VI.

Review

What I didn’t like

N/A. Well, what did you expect? For a five-star review, there better not be anything in this category! 😉

(In all seriousness, though, this book was amazing from start to finish, and there wasn’t a thing about it that I didn’t like. Not only was it fascinating plot-wise, it was beautifully written. Keep scrolling to see me break down exactly what I loved about it!)

What I felt ambivalent about

The ambiguous ending. Granted, this is more personal preference than anything else, but endings that don’t provide solid closure have always bugged me.* I know that it’s a typical author’s trick to leave the exact details of a book’s ending open to interpretation so that every reader can come away from the novel with their own personal message, but sometimes I just want to know exactly what’s going to happen to the characters that I’ve come to care so much about. I don’t want to have to devise my own narrative — I want to know for certain that they’re safe and sound and living happily ever after! This is especially applicable to Syzygy because of how sweeping the timescale of the book is; as I mentioned above, it actually consists of six smaller books, the events of which span years. After watching Ash and Skye grow and change over such a long period of time, I was super attached to them, and I wanted nothing more than for them to finally have a calm, happy life when the events of the book were over. So, when the end of the novel rolled around and they were faced with a monumental, life-changing decision in the final few paragraphs,** I was on the edge of my seat… but then the book ended without revealing what choice they ultimately made. I have my own hypotheses as to what happened, of course, but I wish I could know for sure.

I must mention, however, that I truly don’t think this book could have ended any other way. Syzygy raises a lot of important questions about themes like standing up for what one thinks is right and the balance between honesty and deceit — it seems only fitting that the book should end with a question as well. Besides, the tone of the ending matched perfectly with the tone of the rest of the novel, so I wasn’t too upset about not knowing exactly what happened. I’m still not overly fond of this technique, though.

*It didn’t bug me enough to ruin the five-star rating, however… the book was just too good to dock points for something so minor!
**Which I can’t say anything else about without spoiling it — you’ll have to read the book!

What I loved

The incredibly fresh imagery. “Make sure to avoid cliche figures of speech” is one of the oldest pieces of writing advice in the book, but in my experience it’s still pretty rare to find a novel where the figurative language stands out as unique. Most of the time, I don’t even notice similes and metaphors while I’m reading — if I do, it’s often a once-per-book kinda thing. With Syzygy, however, imagery was leaping out at me every few pages. It’s obvious that Ullrich put a lot of time into making sure that her descriptions were as vivid as they could be; I mean, how often do you hear comparisons like, “Wind tossed pale strands of hair across her face like lines of static”? Lines like these brought the fascinating world of Syzygy to life in a way that I never expected… and it was also pretty fun to see what the most imaginative comparison I could find was, almost like hunting for Easter eggs as I read.

The low-key, slow-burn romance. I feel like romance has become a built-in feature of young adult fiction these days — it’s hard to find a YA book in any genre that doesn’t feature some sort of love story subplot. Syzygy is no exception, but what sets it apart from most other novels is the fact that the romance is fairly low-key. At the beginning of the book, Ash has a crush on a fellow diver named Willow, but he doesn’t let that distract him from achieving his goals. Sure, his interest in her does make him more inclined to ask her to join a team he’s putting together for a special mission, but for the most part, he refuses to let himself get distracted by her (thank God).* For Ash, romance doesn’t become important until much later in the novel… and by that point, he’s starting to realize that the person he truly loves is someone who’s been by his side the entire time. Personally, I’m a complete sucker for slow-burn romances, so I ate this up. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing two people who have known each other for a while finally realize their feelings for each other, and Syzygy definitely delivered on that front.

The casual representation. For a book where almost all of the characters were born from a gene pool of just a few hundred people, Syzygy was more diverse than a lot of the YA fiction I’ve read. Even though she was somewhat limited by the scientific constraints of the world she created (again… the lunar colony’s gene pool is pretty tiny), Ullrich managed to include characters of all different backgrounds without making a big deal about those differences. In my favorite example, Hazel, one of the “weeds” (novices) on Ash’s dive team, has two moms. This is a fact that is just subtly woven into the narrative; all of the other characters accept it as perfectly normal, and it isn’t the basis for any sort of conflict. Personally, I think we need more casual representation like this in fiction, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it incorporated here.

The in-depth, creative worldbuilding. Even if I hadn’t read Ullrich’s posts detailing the research that she did before writing her novel, I would have been able to tell right off the bat that an incredible amount of effort went into designing the world of Syzygy. Every bit of science that the novel incorporates, from the genetic engineering to the space elevator, is described in precise detail, drawing on real-world, near-future science concepts in a way that makes it seem as though Ullrich’s future might become a reality much sooner than we think. Beyond that, the societal structures that Ullrich devised are incredibly imaginative. I really loved the idea of teenagers having to return to a ravaged Earth on “dives” to slog around half-drowned cities while scavenging for genetic samples — I’ve never read anything like it before!**

The plot twists that I never saw coming. I’m not sure what it is — maybe I’m just becoming a more critical reader? — but it’s becoming rarer and rarer for me to be caught completely unawares by a plot twist. More often than not, I’ll have seen it coming (or at least foreshadowed) to some extent, which ruins that delicious feeling of suspense that a well-crafted plot encourages in its readers. Syzygy’s rollercoaster of a storyline, however, definitely kept me on my toes. Characters betrayed each other left and right, unexpected substances became vital cures, hidden colonies revealed themselves after years of concealment — and I wasn’t expecting any of it. The thrill of never knowing what was coming next kept me turning pages long into the wee hours of the morning. In fact, I think I read the entire book in two days because I just couldn’t put it down.

Everything. Seriously — just everything. I could talk about the nuances of what makes this book so amazing for days on end, but this post would be way too long if I did. So I’ll end with this: I created a new blog tag called favorite-books just so I could assign it to this book review. Enough said.

*I’ve read wayyy too many books where the love-interest subplot starts to overpower the main plot (cough cough A Thousand Pieces of You), so it’s always nice to see a character sticking to his guns and refusing to get distracted by a pretty girl!
**Of course, it’s a little less cool when you consider that Earth could very well end up like the world Ullrich portrays if global warming continues at its current rate… but hey, we all know that the best sci-fi novels are often cautionary tales.

Overall

With its unique concept, stellar descriptive writing, and suspenseful plot, Syzygy completely redefined my expectations for what science fiction should be. I went into this book intrigued by the premise, but not quite sure what to expect — and I came out of it ready to buy every book Ullrich has ever written. It was just that good! I’m already looking forward to Ullrich’s next novel, Binary Chop… and the one after that… and the one after that.

So, even if you aren’t a science fiction fan, I highly, highly recommend giving Syzygy a try. It’s a fairly long read, but one that is definitely worth your time. In fact, you should make sure that you block off a large chunk of your schedule before you start reading, because once you start, you won’t want to put it down!

Have you read this book? If so, what were your thoughts on it? If not, are you interested in reading it?

12 comments

  1. I’m thrilled you enjoyed the book so much, Alex! Thank you for the thorough review; it’s constructive to learn not only what a reader liked, but why. I know you’re well-versed in astronomy and lunar colony design, so I’m relieved that nothing on the science side stood out to you as wildly implausible.

    As for the ending, I confess that I agonized over it. Typically I also dislike ambiguous conclusions, and writing one in my own book felt like hypocrisy. (You might have guessed from the Byzantine plot structure that I prefer all my loose ends neatly tied.) But dictating that final choice would disappoint half the audience who advocated the other path, and negate the provoking question of “what would I do in that situation?” So I took a creative risk and left the end somewhat open. I have my opinion about what happens next, and if the series ever catches on, I’d love to write a short story collection exploring the history and future of the “Syzygy” universe. In the meantime, however, I must finish revising “Binary Chop”, a book that leaves no doubt about its characters’ fates!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course — thank you so much for sending me a copy of the book, and for having so much patience with me (I know it took me wayyyy longer than it should have to get this review up)! I’m not being facetious when I say that it’s honestly one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve already read it several times over, and it continues to delight me with every re-read. You’ve definitely gained at least one super-fan.

      In regards to the ending, your comment only strengthened my conviction that “Syzygy” couldn’t have ended any other way. Like I mentioned, your book raises a lot of important questions that readers must answer for themselves — such as the debate over what action to take regarding climate change — so I agree that leaving readers with one final question to answer was the best decision, especially considering the magnitude of the decision that Skye and Ash faced. I would love to read those Syzygy short stories, though.

      Good luck with “Binary Chop,” and with all your noveling endeavors to come — I can’t wait to read them!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh my gosh thank you so much! Please let me know what you think of it when you get around to it! Honestly, when I picked up this book, it had been a while since I read pure sci-fi, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. But to my delight, it delivered in a way I never anticipated! I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh this sounds SO AMAZING. I adore slow burn romances, and it’s so so nice to see romances that don’t always take up the whole plot. Plot twists always make a book so much more interesting as well! This honestly sounds right up my alley, despite the fact I don’t often pick up sci-fi ahah. I loved reading your review, it was so in-depth and thorough! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ahh thank you so much for your kind comment! I was really, really happy with the romance in this one — it was perfectly low-key, without being so low-key that I didn’t care about it. If you do end up picking it up (no pressure though) I’d love to hear your thoughts on it 🙂

      Like

    • Definitely let me know what you think of it if you check it out! It’s a great one to start with if you’re just getting into sci-fi because of how well-researched and realistic it is! I’d gush about it some more to convince you to read it, but I think you can already tell how much I love it just by looking at this post, haha 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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