The Brilliance of Beth Revis’ Final “Across the Universe” Book

In Shades of Earth, a hundred-year interstellar mission finally comes to fruition––stranding its passengers on an unwieldy new planet with no way to reach home. Credits for the above collage are here.

What happens when a centuries long mission to an exoplanet finally arrives? In Shades of Earth, the final installment of Beth Revis’ sci-fi epic, for one thing, Earth has long since beat the colonists to it––and their prospects on this brave new world don’t look good.

The trilogy’s first two installments, Across the Universe (yes, after the song) and A Million Suns, explore a society formed on a generational ship, the Godspeed, over hundreds of years in isolation: various crises with no assistance from home have bred a tightly-regulated micro-dystopia, with drugs pumped into the populace to keep it docile and incendiary truths tightly guarded from view. The Godspeed has no captain, only a succession of absolute power through generations of clones who hold the title Eldest. Tensions come to a head, though, when the original members of the mission, scientists and military personnel who agreed to pass the centuries until arrival in cryogenic slumber, start mysteriously waking, and Amy, the daughter of a colonel, falls in love with Elder, a young leader-in-waiting who has yet to learn the worst of his regime’s secrets.

As it turns out, Godspeed has been parked at its destination, a habitable exoplanet dubbed “Centauri-Earth,” for some time, and as the ship falls into disrepair, disembarking emerges as the only path to survival. But Shades of Earth shows us a Centauri-Earth riddled with dangers––aside from the sharpening tensions between the ship-born inhabitants of Godspeed and the Earthlings just awakened from sleep.

Revis’ worldbuilding is a tightly-wound coil that never stops unfurling: personal drama is aplenty, but the past and its glaring omissions lend the trilogy most of its suspense. Every plot twist emerges from the ashes of history, in both earlier books and Shades of Earth, so it’s no surprise that Centauri-Earth is hardly what it seems. Layered under the struggle for survival in this volume is a deeper, sustaining mystery: the question of circumstance, and the truth of how it came to be. With both elements, the terror of an alien world and the whiffs of vague past catastrophe and possible conspiracy, Revis creates a stomping ground for her sci-fi that antagonizes the colonists in multiple ways, yielding a survival story that really uses its surroundings, not just as a force to struggle against, but as a source of revelation. It’s illuminating to dig in Revis’ sandbox and find the treasures she’s buried there––even more so that some of them take the whole book to uncover.

Those more stubborn details build to an even more powerful conclusion: when the real culprits, conspiracies, and causes are hidden, it is all the more compelling when the monster at the reader’s feet scurries away, and a deeper growl from above prompts them to look up, and meet the real one.

In Shades of Earth, power is cleverly nestled in its designs and machinations, sending the characters immediate threats and keeping them in the dark about its true nature. The structure Revis creates for this in her plot is layered, so rife with complete shifts in paradigm that the final reveals are a rousing breath of release. Though they may read as deus ex machina to some, these sudden, all-consuming realizations have a surprising thematic utility, one that can be found in the likes of Doctor Who. (It’s reasonable to infer that the show had a a direct influence on the work––the author’s notes in her short story anthology, The Future Collection, cite it directly.)

Doctor Who has boundless faith in human beings, so much so that its greatest heartbreaks happen when people fail to act as their best selves in situations of crisis that demand it, from paranoia in the episode “Midnight” to trigger-happy dealings with another species in “The Hungry Earth” and “In Cold Blood.” (All three of these are magnificent episodes, by the way.)

There are echoes of this in Shades of Earth, with devastatingly authentic depictions of peace gone awry. The book is defined by compassion when it comes to unpacking the unproductive tensions between ship-borns and Earth-borns: compassionate not only in understanding and forgiving their motives but also in terms of emphasizing how devastating this animosity is for everyone involved, and how it pulls attention away from the real source of harm. Here, Revis writes the ultimate tragedy: human beings too beholden to their nature to recognize the institutions and authorities that actually pose a threat. It has all the trappings of free will, with the tart smack of inevitability.

Revis does this especially well with Amy’s father, the Earth-born Colonel Martin, who reacts to the hostile environment and the ship-borns foolishly yet predictably. He has a compassionate side––it shows very obviously in his interactions with his daughter––but it isn’t enough to resist paranoia, and, in the tradition of tragic flaws, gets warped under pressure. It’s heartbreaking in him because it’s heartbreaking in everyone else. Shades of Earth genuinely believes its characters are better than this. It gets its gravity from the painful fact that they very often aren’t.

Scott Westerfeld’s “Specials” Ends With a Flashy, Unnecessary Bang

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops.

Young dissidents hide (and hoverboard) in the ruins of the 21st century throughout Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy. It becomes an especially important staging ground as the resistance gains momentum in the finale, Specials. Credits for this illustration are here.

This terminal volume in Scott Westerfeld’s foundational dystopia, the Uglies trilogy, follows a familiar tune.

The promise of earlier books, from the series opener, Uglies and its thought-provoking take on coming of age and its unfortunate implications, to the middle volume, Pretties, and its mind-bending complications, turn out to be too ambitious to sit comfortably in Specials‘ 350 pages, and too lofty to decisively resolve.

Tally, the teenage heroine who saw the cracks in the system in book one and suddenly found herself a part of it in book two, winds up yet again unwillingly modified by the government of her city, this time “enhanced” both physically and mentally into a man-hunting machine who can track dissidents like prey and do the government’s bidding with maximum efficiency.

The government in Westerfeld’s series doesn’t rule with an iron fist, exactly: it transforms its citizens into perfectly beautiful, perfectly brainwashed “Pretties” once they come of age. Constantly occupied with their cliques, parties, and thrills as a result of it, the policy of compulsory cosmetic surgery at 16 is the gift that keeps on giving––humanity is too infantilized to cause many problems or raise objections to the status quo. For the few that remain, the government has Special Circumstances, or “Specials,” on the opposite end of the surgical brainwashing spectrum, an agency with faces designed to elicit fear and its own distinct, government-implanted delusions.

Westerfeld’s victories in this volume are largely conceptual, and all in the details. He skillfully invents a subculture for these Specials and uses the tools of previous volumes––the language, conformity, a strong sense of physicality––to make its allure convincing and illuminate the psychological factors that keep people in line where the influence of systems stops. From Pretty-isms like “bubbly” and “happy-making” emerge Special-isms like “icy,” and new internal logic that capitalizes on our characters’ needs to feel superior to the “bubblehead” Pretties to match.

Tally, however, has been fed indoctrination, questioned it, and overcome it two times over now, once in Uglies and once in Pretties, and Specials has her do it yet again, from the ground up. In spite of this hurdle, or perhaps because of it, Specials is the speed round version. It’d be reductive to spend the same amount of pages in the same battle––one that frustrated many readers when they met a bubbly, brainwashed Tally in Pretties with the clock turned back on her character development. In Pretties, though, her starting point is alien enough to make the battle discernibly different. Specials doesn’t add anything new: the surgery has brainwashed Tally before and she has recovered from it before. It’s a nearly identical struggle, in a slightly different flavor.

This is a valid reason that might make the sidelining of Tally’s struggle with her new identity a wise move. But Westerfeld’s deconstruction of the Specials’ superiority complex is the subject of the book’s most memorable scenes––including one very devastating kiss––and it injects crucial friction into a romantic subplot that otherwise fades into a dull thrum. But the book doesn’t decide what to do with it either way, leaving a well-developed subplot that, when the action deems it necessary, just disappears.

The “Specials” issue expires too early in part because, this being Tally’s final volume, we have bigger fish to fry. As the romance has the happily ever after, the dystopian has the collapse of the corrupt regime.

Westerfeld’s take on this front, even though it can sometimes feel like an obligatory conclusion, has a real streak of realism to it. Rather than making Tally the absolute mastermind, he taps her to play a small role in an ongoing shift that began before she decided that her political situation was bogus: Specials sees her dealing with auxiliary consequences and hurrying the gradual change along until her own circumstances see a breaking point.

This decision allows the scope of the dystopian world order to come across, but doesn’t put armies at a 17-year-old’s command to do it. In keeping with this, Westerfeld’s choice of self-governing cities as opposed to a massive totalitarian state or empire makes some interesting strides towards progress in this fictional world possible within this final volume, but overall the pace of revolution is glacial. It is effected by clandestine systems of couriers, and in a refreshing turn, Tally is important, but not the center of the world.

With all this in place, the threat of war that emerges in the final third of the book feels trite and excessive, less like a decision that truly befits Westerfeld’s fictional world and more like bending to the explosive expectations of a YA sci-fi finale. But the Uglies series, action-heavy as it is, has always been internally-driven at its core. When it isn’t, it’s fueled by relationships, rather than weaponry. The doomed friendship between Tally and Shay, an electrifying supporting character, centered the tension between the devotees and the free-thinkers in the previous two books, and Specials only begs for this third-act war plot because Shay is so noticeably absent.

The series succeeded in the past because of its interior, reflective nature, even in the face of all the sci-fi bells and whistles. That is where its impact is strongest. It’s not a political thriller––though Specials tries to incorporate that quality with its villain, Dr. Cable. It’s not a revolution story, either, and even though war appears, it’s not a war story. This isn’t something to fix with hard sci-fi optics. It’s something that, like it ultimately concludes about people, is better left unchanged.

“The Black Key” Sticks a Shaky But Satisfying Landing

Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

A young woman fights to topple an exploitative regime in the final book of Amy Ewing’s Lone City Trilogy, The Black Key. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits for components used in a long trail of links starting with this post.

After two books of world-building and lead-up, The Black Key carries the corrupt royal leadership of the Lone City to its foregone conclusion: a decisive rebel victory. Amy Ewing’s last word on her vivid, thought-provoking world leaves a bit to be desired––it doesn’t expand things like The White Rose, or give off a powerful atmosphere like her first book, The Jewel. But ultimately, it still yields gratifying and complete endings for most of her cast of characters, and they are how this finale fights all the way to the finish line, albeit with a delay.

As it takes the forefront in the third installment, Ewing’s long-awaited rebellion emerges astonishingly simple for all of the hopes resting on it. As it rages on and accomplishes its plans in a single day, the book introduces obstacles that our lead, Violet, and her ample, well-trained ensemble, efficiently push out of the way. In the darkest hours of her fight, no one is ever really cornered; no situation ever truly dire. Ewing gets her characters in trouble plenty, but in all save a few circumstances, it never truly sticks.

There’s reason, though, that the long and arduous process of a massive political shift is condensed in this book. The government Violet and company have to topple is a city with a very small elite and not a massive, war-ready national federation, and Ewing has one tool on her side that most authors in dystopia don’t: her rebels can use magic to literally move the Earth beneath their feet, and a massive united front of discontent for the taking. With a bit more complexity, a bit more flesh, a bit more bite, the rebellion in The Black Key could’ve been as compelling as its setup.

Instead, the finale doesn’t really make an attempt at that. The fighting is a seventy-page interlude at the end, occupying a strange middle ground between an afterthought in a trilogy mostly motivated by unspoken tension and pivotal conversations, and the ultimate focus in a story that is mostly about a coup. These two options don’t go well together, but this combination is what Ewing has to execute in her third act as a consequence of the vague last stand she kept alluding to on the horizon.

The character moments she truly excels at have to interrupt the action as it goes on, and as we endure descriptions of magic and all the havoc it wreaks, the endless violence, the movements of volunteer troops, there’s an ache somewhere for a final fate decided with groundwork, or with politics, or the backstabbing and deception book one does so well.

Tragically, this book approaches it, when Violet steals away into the ruling district, the Jewel, in order to keep an eye on the Duchess of the Lake, her old mistress. The plot never slows, however, to give her a second look, the way it did with the series opener. When a certain plot twist drops, in a character-driven scene during the final incursion, it lands without sufficient shock, exposing the Duchess’ softer side without providing ample justification. She’s woefully underdeveloped here, and makes for an unfortunate villain by virtue of it. With additional attention, maybe. But the Electress, an originally upper-middle-class citizen ascended to the throne by marriage (and, most likely, ruthless ambition to boot), hardly appears, though the loose threads of a plot from the end of The Jewel possibly could’ve facilitated it.

But where plot fumbles, Ewing’s work on the ensemble is in full form, as Violet has to tap into her empathy for other members of the working class, understand and negotiate the complicated world of the royalty with slightly more power this time, and confront the consequences of her rebellion and all it brings in closer, less abstract, more personal ways.

Because Violet is disguised as a servant in the Jewel, we see less of Ash, Raven, Sil, and all the surrogates they recruited in book two (a choice that results in less gratifying stories for the additional surrogates: Olive, due to her absence, gets the particularly short end of the stick). We see more of Lucien, Garnet, and Carnelian, though, and Ewing’s careful consideration of their circumstances is where The Black Key gets most of its insight.

Lucien, the high-ranking servant who’s been masterminding this whole rebellion business since the beginning, is a fuller and freer character than he’s ever been: if the rebellion isn’t all that complicated, its leader is. In this book, his role as an almost father-figure to Violet gets a more substantial chunk of the story’s attention, the toll this has taken on him creeping a bit more into view. Lucien’s actions in this installment are wholly and unquestionably defined by love, a motivation that would be distant, if not unthinkable, to the cynical, closely-guarded character we met in book one.

Garnet, another supporting player with an endearing and impressive character arc, gets really subtle and unique moments to reckon with his royal heritage including possibly the best moment of the book: the Duchess of the Lake’s “You’re with them? Fighting with whores and servants?” to Garnet’s, “Yes, Mother. I am.”

Garnet, having been shuffled into an uncomfortable arranged marriage, finds himself more devoted to the rebel cause than before, but keenly aware of the cost, particularly to the people around him. A few sobering scenes of this are enough to broaden the novel’s perspective: it becomes no longer about the downtrodden and oppressed rising up against their chains––now it’s that and the story of complicity at the top, with an entire class of people quietly suffering.

Carnelian, the Duchess’ niece, whom the Duchess constantly berates for her humble upbringing, also adds a tinge of flavor to this perspective, and becomes the fascinating, morally-grey figure that the Duchess herself once played. When Carnelian’s last moments in the novel come, though, they’re thoroughly earned. It’s enough to make you wish the rest of The Black Key were given that same luxury.