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Hi, friends! Thanks for joining me today; I’m so glad you’re here 💙. Today I’m sharing my review of Lindsay Ellis’s 2020 debut novel, Axiom’s End. A solid first-contact story, Axiom’s End features wonderful world-building, excellent espionage, and most importantly: really cool aliens. Keep reading to hear my thoughts on the first book in Ellis’s Noumena series.
Support a local bookstore by purchasing Axiom’s End on Bookshop.org.
I read this book as part of my 2021 Reading Challenge. Check out all the books I’m reading for the challenge here.
Denial is always the first response to upheaval, to any collective trauma, and if these leaks eventually reveal themselves to be legitimate, the revelation of first contact will be traumatic. Proof positive that we are not alone… Proof positive that authorities cannot be trusted… Truth is not freely given in our society; it must be taken.
What is Axiom’s End About?
The year is 2007. Sting and The Police are on tour for the first time in two decades, Paris Hilton tries out jail for a month, and Whoopi Goldberg replaces Rosie O’Donnell on The View. The times might seem simple, but they’re about to get complicated. And not just because the first iPhone was invented. It turns out that aliens are real, they’ve been on Earth for forty years, and the government has known about it the whole time.
Axiom’s End begins on a day that will come to be known as the Obelus Event. On this day, a meteor strikes Earth just outside Los Angeles. It’s strange: this is the second meteor to crash-land in the area this month. Even stranger: it’s not a meteor. It’s a spaceship. And it just deposited a creature (or several) who probably doesn’t have the most amicable of ambitions on this planet.
That night, one of the aliens targets the home of our protagonist, Cora Sabino. The alien hopes to find her estranged father turned whistleblower, Nils Ortega. Nils recently leaked a document known as the Fremda Memo, which proved that the government has been keeping extraterrestrials in its custody for decades. Now, this new visitor to Planet Earth is hoping Nils can help it find its own.
Cora attempts to flee, but she doesn’t get very far. She apprehended by one of the aliens and subsequently injected with something designed to make her compliant. The world goes black, and the rest, as they say, is history. And by history, I just mean “the plot.”
She felt the injection just beneath her left jawbone before she even saw the syringe… She reached into her memory, trying to recall what only a couple of minutes ago had her so concerned. Something to do with a family, perhaps, a family whose names she couldn’t recall.
What Axiom’s End Does Right
Axiom’s End has a lot going for it, which is nice. Chiefly, and probably the most important part of a first-contact story: its aliens. Next, an optional inclusion that I really appreciate, especially in this genre, is the espionage element. Lastly, like many first-contact stories, the book explores some fascinating themes about discovering and demystifying the other.
Let’s talk about those extraterrestrials
So, just in case I haven’t said the phrase “cool aliens” enough in this review, allow me to reiterate: Axiom’s End has some really cool aliens. If your first-contact story doesn’t have cool aliens, you’re gonna have a bad time. Lucky for us, Elli’s novel not only has cool aliens but also imaginative, thorough, and well-realized world-building.
Ampersand, our primary extraterrestrial protagonist, came to Earth to find Čefo, an alien from his species that has been in government custody for decades. Čefo isn’t just a MacGuffin whose only purpose is to give all the characters something to fight over and give the reader the runaround. As Ampersand explains to Cora, Čefo and his group likely had their own motivations in choosing Earth, too.
Čefo’s group of… refugees chose Earth because the planet was known to the… superorganism as having an oxygen-rich, stable climate and had likely not been colonized or consumed by other exoterrans.
Additionally, what takes Ampersand from merely a cool alien to an actual compelling character is his arc. At first, he is (rightfully) mistrustful of humans because he knows his cousins have been held captive by humans for the last forty years. However, throughout the story, Ampersand sees Cora take risks on his behalf. This warms him up to her, and, eventually, he becomes willing to take certain risks for her… within reason, of course.
That’s why the government is so big; it’s full of secrets!
So, as I said, espionage is not a necessary element to a first-contact story, but, personally, I like what it adds to the stories that include it. In Axiom’s End, the presence of government entities prevents the story from feeling like it takes place in isolation from the outside world. Let’s face it, even if they didn’t have Čefo’s group in custody for the last forty years, it’s hard to believe the government wouldn’t hear about aliens crash-landing to Earth outside Los Angeles.
Another way the inclusion of government entities adds dimension to the story is how it informs character interactions. Ampersand sees the CIA agents as “militarists,” and Cora doesn’t trust them because they took her family into custody the night of the Obelus Event. This gives the two seemingly-disparate characters a point of commonality. It also provides a framing device for the more intimate, existential story Ellis wanted to tell.
The belief that better information-sharing among national security departments and agencies… motivated the president and Congress to create new institutions to safeguard the nation against catastrophic terrorist attacks… Of course, the agencies that created these new institutions were unaware of the massive, existential secret other organizations were sitting on.
The book includes press releases, leaked documents, and articles from Nils’s blog published concurrently with the plot’s events. These clippings give us a better picture of Nils, his motivations, and how his decisions have harmed — and continue to harm — his relationship with his family. All of these things help him feel more like a character whose actions have consequences and less like an offscreen, machiavellian caricature of Julian Assange.
Is anybody out there?
The final thing I want to make sure I praise this book for is its exploration of the idea of the other. Axiom’s End is not the first book to use the “aliens come to Earth and discover humans” trope to explore these ideas, but I think it explores them quite well. The aliens are obviously a novel discovery for the humans living on Earth. However, as intelligent and all-knowing as they seem to be, the aliens weren’t completely unsurprised at what awaited them on Earth.
In addition to exploring the idea of the other from the obvious perspectives — human to alien and vice versa — Ellis also explores this idea from the perspective of the superorganism, the sentient core of Ampersand’s home planet. The superorganism doesn’t have a track record of reacting well upon finding people in places it doesn’t expect. Hey, what a coincidence! Neither do humans!
One species is only comprehensible to another species as it understands itself… It is in the nature of all organisms… to understand other entities only through their own prism of existence. We understand each other only insofar as we understand ourselves.
Through the superorganism, Ellis puts humans on the receiving end of the threat of cosmic annihilation. This forces the reader to consider how we (that is, humans) would react if we were to find advanced life on other planets. I mean, it’s not like we have a track record of responding well when we find humans in places we didn’t want there to be other humans. (For reference, see: any time anyone in human history did a colonialism). We often wonder if we are the only intelligent species in the universe, but do we really want to find out if we aren’t?
What Axiom’s End Could Have Done Better
So, as you might have guessed by my star rating, Axiom’s End wasn’t flawless for me. Firstly, the writing was often repetitive and sometimes overly descriptive. Next, Cora was a somewhat hollow protagonist. Also, and perhaps most confusingly, there were several random details and plot threads on which Ellis never followed through.
Let’s talk about those regular ol’ terrestrials
Our primary terrestrial protagonist is Cora Sabino. Cora recently dropped out of the University of California, Irvine, where she studied linguistics (more on that later). While Cora wasn’t an unlikable character (except in one moment; again, more on that later), I never truly felt connected to her journey or motivations. We never got to know Cora as a person with a life before the Obelus Event. I often found myself more interested in her as a vehicle to learn more about Ampersand.
Everything about Cora is framed by current events; we know almost nothing about her life or relationships before teaming up with Ampersand. There is one extended flashback scene where Cora gets tucked away in the painful memory of hiding in her closet while her parents fought. Cora is nothing but a hard-boiled, cynical badass for the entire book up to this point. Now, all of a sudden, she’s crying in a cabinet, remembering a traumatic moment from her childhood.
She tried to stop the intense heaving of her chest, mop the tears from her face, will the redness from her skin. She hadn’t even realized how hard she’d been crying or how desperately she needed to cry.
This scene bothered me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we don’t often get women characters in media who can be emotional without said emotion being used as a flaw or detriment to their character. I would have preferred to see Cora’s mounting anxiety recognized throughout the novel to make her reactions to her predicament more realistic. Secondly, we’ve witnessed Cora address her mother using her first name, and we know she’s estranged from Nils. So, ultimately, this flashback didn’t tell us anything new.
You get an adjective; you get an adjective; everybody gets an adjective!
Okay, so Axiom’s End doesn’t really have an adjective problem. I just wanted to write something funny for the heading to this section. What I’m trying to say is that Ellis’s writing is often repetitive and sometimes overly descriptive. (See what I did there?) Sometimes this would throw off the pacing of a scene. Other times, it removed any moral or emotional ambiguity that would have made characters more interesting.
It’s hard to provide an example of the former without getting into spoiler territory (and the exemplary quotes are long af), so let’s talk about removing ambiguity. Remember how I said Cora was never unlikeable, except in one moment? Well, in this scene, she’s fighting with her aunt, Luciana. Luciana works at the government agency holding Čefo’s group in custody. The end of the argument goes like this:
Cora said the first thing that popped into her head. When she eventually came to look back on this conversation, she wondered why the most honest thing she could say was also the meanest, the cruelest, the pettiest. “I’m sorry it was me,” she said. “I’m sorry [Ampersand] decided to talk through me and not you.”
Now, there’s no doubt that Cora was an asshole here. However, I believe it would have been more interesting to leave out the part where she regrets her comments. Telling us Cora regrets her words removes any doubt that Cora is a good person. Yes, she said this awful thing, but don’t worry, you can still like her because she felt bad about it later! On the other hand, omitting it would have added dimension to Cora’s character and encouraged the reader to question her motivations.
Is it a red herring or a forgotten plot thread? The answer is… 🤷🏽
The final criticism I have for Axiom’s End is the handful of forgotten plot threads apparent in the story. First, we never get closure on who is leaking information about Čefo’s group to Nils. Cora’s aunt, Luciana, is Nils’s sister, but she is adamant she’s not the leak. She and Cora fight about this, but it’s never definitive whether (a) Cora believes her or (b) Luciana is even telling the truth. Okay, so maybe that one’s kind of minor; perhaps we can overlook this.
Second, remember, how I said Cora studied linguistics at UC Irvine? And remember how this whole book centers on her being the sole translator for an extraterrestrial being who doesn’t speak English? Yeah, well, Cora doesn’t use any of her linguistics knowledge at all. Ampersand talks to and through her using a microphone/chip/thingy that translates his language into English for her to reiterate to whomever it may concern. Umm, alright… that’s convenient, but whatever; maybe it’s better for the pacing.
The last one, and maybe the biggest offender for me, was the CIA’s intelligence bungling. Agents have supposedly been following Cora’s family in hopes of finding out if anyone is in contact with Nils or knows his whereabouts. Despite this, no one finds the letter Nils sent Cora, which, mind you, had his actual return address on it! What’s more, no one discovers the letter when Cora decides to return it to Nils, for which she used her own mailbox! Yeah, okay. Sure, Jan.
Now, I will add the caveat that this the first book in what is planned to be (at least) a trilogy. So I may end up eating some or all of these words based on what happens in the sequel(s). That said, I still find it odd that many of these things were brought up and not only left unresolved but just never even addressed.
Is Axiom’s End Worth Reading?
So, that was kind of a lot. Axiom’s End has a lot going for it, but it is definitely not a perfect book. However, I think if the premise sounds interesting to you, and you liked what I had to say about the positive aspects of this book, definitely check this one out! It’s a solid debut and a pretty good first-contact story with some flaws that can probably be overlooked if you’re a fan of the genre.
I don’t really know who Axiom’s End intended audience is. The book is definitely not Young Adult. For one thing, it lacks the tropes associated with the genre and generally just feels more emotionally mature than YA Sci-Fi. However, Ellis has said that, in early drafts, Cora was initially nineteen, and the book is quite light on the science part of science-fiction. In this way, Axiom’s End is likely to be appreciated by a broader audience, even if that comes at the expense of disappointing some “hardcore” sci-fi fans.
As I mentioned, Axiom’s End is the first in a series. At this point, I’m not sure if I will be reading the sequel, Truth of the Divine. At the time of writing this review, the synopsis says, “The year is 2008, Dick Cheney is president, and Blink-182 is having a resurgence of relevancy because aliens are suddenly very, very topical. Hijinks ensue.” I will likely wait until a more detailed synopsis is provided before deciding if I’m reading the sequel. The cover is gorgeous though!
[Humans] are the civilization that disproves this axiom. You would be both the greatest discovery in the history of the superorganism and the greatest threat to its conception of itself as divinely unique.
What’s Next from Lindsay Ellis?
And there you have it: my thoughts on Lindsay Ellis’s debut Novel: Axiom’s End. Have you read this book or watched any of her videos? In keeping with the era in which Axiom’s End takes place, I recommend her video on the Protest Music of the Bush Era.
Personally, I liked Axiom’s End well enough, but I’m not quite sure if I’m clamoring for the sequel. I’ll probably wait for some early reviews for Truth of the Divine to come in before deciding if I’ll add it to my TBR.
I’ll be back soon with another blog post, so keep your eyes peeled for that! In the meantime, you can keep up with my reading on Goodreads, or follow my other social media. I’m @simplespines on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
As always: thanks for reading, and I’ll see you soon. 💙