This is a science fiction novel built around the multiverse theory. It jumps into an interesting explanation of how the system works from the start. That interest soon turns dark as the health and longevity differences found with economic disparity offers a rare opportunity to become part of the utopian city. Despite the hard science foundation, though, this is a novel about people, choices, and consequences.
The narrative voice is an odd, cynical monotone for much of the book as Cara, the main character, lives on the edge of two societies. She’s valuable for her disposability, or rather, the opposite. The multiverse rejects more than one copy per world, so when her double dies, ‘our’ Cara can then visit those worlds using a special machine. She lives in the city and has access to a citizen’s resources when she’s not transversing as she works toward earning a citizenship. But she doesn’t belong there, and while she reveals fascinating details, she’s set apart from them.
A literal wall divides this society with few exceptions, but besides some holdovers from early Ruralite religious beliefs, gender and sexuality are a spectrum. Racial disparity, on the other hand, is stronger when the city blocks all rays that would trigger melanin, making the distinctions hard to ignore. Sexism still echoes in Ruralite expectations and in the warlord’s treatment of his wives and mistress as well.
The city itself is a fascinating mix of utopian ideals and social failures. It offers health care, protection for those unable to work, fresh fruit for anyone to enjoy… But the real benefits are reserved for citizens, and the resources come from those exiled to Ashtown beyond the wall. The city isolates its citizens, rejecting touch and care as necessary while those outside the wall embrace it. A utopia for the few with strict social and emotional barriers blunting them from the reality of their faults. They are blind to what makes their city work.
We only glimpse the religion practiced by Ruralites outside the wall, but those hints are complex and fascinating. The funerary ritual is beautiful while the differences in lifelines across the Earths affect the different characters’ calling as much as anything.
The writing uses simple sentences full of nuance that reveal the complexity of a world struggling to survive after industrialists polluted and stripped everything of value. Nor is the lesson learned. The areas with damage sit outside the wall while the people with control of resources live within, paying those trapped outside to continue the stripping either of their Earth or another.
This is far from a simple narrative. As soon as you grow comfortable in what you think you know, another twist is thrown into the mix, making everything that much more complex. While such a pattern could have broken the narrative, this works because each twist builds on what’s been happening instead of tearing it down. The same is true for the foreshadowing. Seemingly unrelated mentions have a direct connection you learn later…and sometimes several connections.
Coming from the life Cara does, it’s little surprise she expects everything to be wrenched from her. Still, her character is more than a product of her upbringing as shown by her bond with Jean, her mentor at work and her teasing dance with Dell, her handler, when Dell seems to repel her advances. Nor is this a new aspect to her personality from her childhood bonds.
She doesn’t lie back and glory in the changes her low survival rate bought her. Cara is a person who acts, and traveling between the worlds makes her hyper-aware of her situation and that of others. She struggles with the questions of whether the quality of people buy their fate or the fate of people makes the quality possible. This book becomes not just a social, but also a philosophical discourse on the back of her questions.
The way each version of the major players (Dell, Nik Nik, Esther, and more) changes from world to world is fascinating. We learn some of the triggers provoking the differences or only uncover the consequences. Cara also changes as she observes or interacts with others. She’s affected by the new reality even when separate from it. The novel is a love story, a story of self-discovery, or maybe both.
This is not a clean, tidy novel, but it is compelling and fascinating. The story has violence, mind warping, and destructive behavior. It’s a powerful read without using complex language or tricky metaphors, so the story is approachable. That’s part of its strength where the narrative tone becomes another hint of things to come. There are twists at every turn, each one building on what you know but turning you in another direction, nor are the characters exactly as they appear. The Space Between Worlds will make you think, feel, and wonder. Well worth the read.
P.S. I received this ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.