After dealing with very far future antics involving multiple post-human species in The Quantum Magician and The Quantum Garden, Derek Künsken’s new novel which takes place in the near future, involves normal people and is set in the atmosphere of Venus feels positively grounded. That said, The House of Styx does revolve around a high concept discovery that could change humanity’s understanding of the universe, so there is that.
Pascal D’Aquillon, his father George-Ettienne, brother Jean-Eudes and little nephew Alexis live in a floating habitat that is part organic and farm the floating, endemic species that float in Venus’s acidic atmosphere. Down in the lower atmosphere they live separate from the main Venusian community that exists many kilometres above them. Living up in that higher milieu are Pascal’s sister, Marthe and brother Émile. Marthe is a member of the ruling Assembly of Venus but is finding herself sidelined and outmanoeuvred by the president who takes her riding orders from the Bank of Pallas. Émile, who has broken with his father, is seeing an artist and trying to connect more deeply with Venus. Everything changes when George-Ettienne discovers a strange storm in which air seems to be flowing into a cave at the bottom of a Venusian cavern, and he takes Pascal to investigate.
House of Styx is the first volume of a trilogy. So despite its length it is, by the end, almost a lengthy set up for what might come next. After making their discovery, Pascal and his family must recruit allies and pull off a daring heist to secure materials needed to further explore their find. Readers of Künsken’s early works will not be surprised by the heist element of the story, a device that was central to The Quantum Magician. And it is a device that he uses well, after spending much of the book setting up not only the characters who will be carrying out the mission but their adversaries.
While The House of Styx may be considered fairly “hard” science fiction (there is plenty here about the physics and makeup of the Venusian atmosphere), Künsken is also really interested in his characters. In his earlier books, the cast while engaging were all post-human in some ways. The D’Aquillon family, on the other hand is very human, with very human emotions and drives. Central to this is the journey of Pascal, a teenage boy who feels wrong in his body but has no idea how to process how he is feeling. But each of the main characters has a journey to make, and new alliances to build, giving this book plenty of heart.
Venus is a deadly environment. An atmosphere that is mainly carbon dioxide with sulphuric acid clouds, and intense heat and pressure at lower altitudes. Despite all of the familiarity they have with it and joy that the characters get in flying around in the Venusian atmosphere, Künsken never loses sight of the fact that this environment is incredibly dangerous. That there may be good reasons for the austerity measures that the government has put in place. So that while the reader is cheering for the group of underdogs at the centre of the story, it is hard not to consider them a little bit reckless. And Künsken does not let everyone move through unscathed.
The House of Styx is a page-turning opening salvo in what promises to be a great science fiction series. Full of engaging characters managing to live in a dangerous environment but with more than a hint of something decidedly unearthly to be further discovered (if they can avoid the attention of the authorities) in future volumes. And while there is no cliffhanger as such, with so much left unresolved, Künsken makes sure readers will be back for the sequel.