Prelude: A lot of people seem to enjoy this book, so you might as well.
I almost always finish the audiobooks I purchase, and I finished this one. But it was a chore, not a pleasure. The book failed for me on so many levels, but many devolve to a set of unlikable, boring characters with inexplicable motivations.
Why does Damien, a warrior priest, instigate the quest to recover Ciani's stolen memories and adept skills? The author tells us it is because Damien is in love with Ciani, but it isn't believable. He hardly knows her at the start of the journey, and once the journey begins, he mostly avoids speaking with her. Sure, he obsesses over her in countless internal monologues, but it's an illustration of puppy love, not the type of love that would motivate a long journey by a mature man to confront a dangerous foe.
Why does Damien hate Tarrant, the powerful dark adept that joins them on the journey? It could be because Tarrant lacks basic human values, but the author roots the conflict in Damien's religious beliefs. This is emphasized in countless internal monologues, and through some of their interactions. The problem is that the tenets of the religion are never presented. So the conflict, which represents a major plot thread, has no understandable basis. In fact, Tarrant is by far the more interesting and likable of the two characters, which makes Damien's hatred seem churlish.
Did I mention the countless internal monologues, which go nowhere and reveal little? Half way through the book, my greatest wish was to see Damien die a horrible, horrible death. By the end, I was just happy to be finished with him and the rest.
There are things to like about the book, such as an interesting and novel world. Unfortunately, I found it to be populated by tedious characters, a poorly explained magic system, and contradictions that made my jaw drop.
This was a fun book, despite the fact that it relies on a premise that is, frankly, a bit absurd. In no reasonable world do pro-choice and pro-life groups "compromise" by allowing not only retroactive abortions (i.e., the flat-out murder of teenagers), but also the use of teens as body farms. It would be abhorrent to both groups, just as it is expected to be abhorrent to nearly all readers. Because I found the basic premise to be ridiculous, I had a hard time suspending my disbelief, and it thus took me a while to get into the story. But I'm glad that I persisted. The characters and interesting and believable as they respond to real threats. And the horror of the process, which is mostly shrouded in mystery for much of the book, is chillingly illustrated towards the end by actual unwinding of one of the less sympathetic characters. Furthermore, the narration is superb. So despite the rickety premise, I really enjoyed the book, and I'm looking forward to the remaining installments.
Julian Comstock is an unusual story for science fiction, a 16th century tragedy, presented in a 19th century style, set in the 22nd century. It's also a first person account written by a friend of the title character, which has the consequence of leaving much about Julian, and about the world in which the story is set, unexplained. If you're looking for an uplifting adventure story, or a geeky exposition on post-collapse technology, you might look elsewhere. But if you like a good story, beautifully told, check this one out. Although the stories and characters are quite different, the tone reminded me a bit of The Great Gatsby, particularly Fitzgerald's last line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." The narration is very well done, though a bit melancholic, but it fits the nature of the tale. Like a previous reviewer, I really didn't want this one to end.
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