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Noumena #1

Axiom's End

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Truth is a human right.

It’s fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the US government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblower father. Even though Cora hasn’t spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the Internet, the paparazzi, and the government—and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father’s leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him—until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up, and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.

Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can, and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence has been completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human—and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

384 pages, Hardcover

First published July 21, 2020

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,419 reviews
Profile Image for J Rhodes.
47 reviews62 followers
August 2, 2020
I feel like I'm one of the few people reading this book who wasn't already part of Ellis' fanbase. This book popped onto my radar when Lindsay Ellis posted a video on her channel about the difficulty she had, even with her platform of thousands and thousands and thousands of subscribers, in getting a publishing deal.

So, that immediately meant one of two things - her book would be a gem that the publishing houses were passing on because they were dumb and elitist, or that the book simply wasn't good. The first few pages of Axiom's End make it quite clear that it's the latter category. This is a book that had it not come with Ellis' fanbase waiting in the wings would never have been published.

The only way I can sum up this novel is that it's a combination of Transformers (2007), the Bumblebee spin-off film, and Twilight. Even positive reviews of this work say it feels like Transformers fanfiction, which is true. The quality of the writing of this work feels like what you'd get in fanfiction, even if there's no Bayhem. There's no much of anything, really. It's all just kind of... there.

As anyone who peruses my reviews will know, I read a lot of online web serials. I'm used to reading extremely rough writing, often written immediately before it was uploaded by the author. What stuck out to me about Axiom's End is that the writing felt exactly the same. The prose is riddled with clunky sentences, bizarre phrasing, redundancies, tautologies, overwrought descriptions and the overall pacing could best be described as awkward - but not as awkward as the dialogue, which we'll get to later.

Given the sheer number of these issues, and how obvious they are, I can only assume the publishers were trying to keep costs as lean as possible. It brings to mind that this novel was published because some bright mind figured that if she has x subscribers and y percentage of them buy it, we can turn a tidy profit. In that sense, you'd keep costs low. There's no evidence that they gave this book a solid edit, be it simple line or developmental or otherwise. This is a novel that was bought to be sold to a pre-existing fanbase, and it shows.

I'll illustrate some of the issues with the writing below. These are phrases that leaped off the page, in the sense that I'm astounded no one fixed them.

"The monitor to the computer was on, a dull blank light emanating from it, but the computer itself seemed to have been dismantled. It was up and running, but its shell had been removed, and was now on the floor."

A dull blank light? I can see what Ellis is going for, but it's not accurate. The computer seemed to be dismantled? So, was it or wasn't it? I guess not, because all that really happened was that someone had removed a panel of the case/tower? But who refers to a computer as having a shell?

"It was a manual car with a stick shift."

Well, obviously. 'It was an airplane with wings.'

"Cora had heard tales of CIA and FBI agents from Luciana, but she'd never actually met one."

This phrasing brings to mind Obi-Wan telling Luke tales of the ancient Jedi knights, not how people would refer to agents of the letter agencies of 2007-era America. You don't 'hear tales' of people like that. 'Luke, did I ever tell you about the Bay of Pigs incident?'

I want to take the time to point out that I often like Ellis' content. Her documentary on the Hobbit films was great. Her Whole Plate on the Bayformers films, less so. Honestly, of this novel, I expected better. I won't say I expected greatness, but I expected something that wasn't so... amateur. I figured I'd get a generic YA-sort of novel, heavy on tropes. I figured I'd get a three-star book.

But the prose isn't even generic. It's flat out bad. It's stuff that reflects a writer that never seemed to grow out of middle school English class 'rules' - for example, never use said.

For example, in an early chapter, there are sixteen bits of dialogue. Despite being A/B exchanges, fourteen of them are directly tagged. There are four whispereds, two yelleds, one shrieked, one answered, one repeated, one managed, one demanded, one asked, one 'she heard' and one only one said.

Like, this is stuff basic How To Write books castigate the reader for. Seeing it show up in a published work of someone who has made her public persona on the back of critiquing the works of others is, well, quite ironic.

As an aside, I'd say the dialogue is the worst part of this novel. The characters never sound like real people and the overuse of 'exciting' dialogue tags only make it more obvious how strange it all is. I don't think there was a single line where a character sounded like a person, and the characters who managed to reach the status of having a distinct voice' would fall in and out of having it.

I've seen the book sold as Transformers Meets Arrival, and that's true (if you squint) but it's also doing a disservice to those works. It's Transformers without the Bayhem (or transforming robots), it's Arrival without the deep dive into communication, it's Twilight without the earnest lust Meyer had for her Edward Cullen. It has pieces of all of these things, but none of them feel like they're part of a coherent whole.

With that in mind, the book dearly wishes to explore some pretty interesting philosophical concepts, then doesn't really. For something that Ellis said she had worked on for a decade or so, I can't say this is a work that reflects it. Whatever bright idea she had, it feels like it was hollowed out over a decade of tinkering. An associate of mine claims the book was so flat that it read to them like it had been ghostwritten. The book lacks energy, it lacks passion, it lacks that spark that makes you go, ah, this is why they wanted to tell this story.

I could just go on and on. The book just makes incredibly basic errors and suffers from rudimentary issues that I feel can only make it into a published work if there was no serious editorial attention given, and that reflects far worse on the publisher than it does Ellis who, by all accounts, wrote this on a bit of a lark and threw it into her trunk.

All in all, the characters are bland, Cora is maddeningly passive, the plot is paced awkwardly, it borrows heavily from the aforementioned works, allusions to things like the Book of Revelation are laughable, themes barely exist and when they do they're not explored... It just goes on.

There could be something good here, but it needed an intensive new draft and significant attention from editors. Unfortunately, I'm sure this book will go on to get a full trilogy because I think the cost/return benefit of this novel is what the publishers were paying attention to, not the text itself.

Maybe the next two will benefit from more care, time, and consideration. But I feel Axiom's End stands as a monument to nothing other than whoever realized they could sell a book to a pre-existing audience and reap the benefits.
Profile Image for Tori (InToriLex).
451 reviews358 followers
May 5, 2022
I was thoroughly underwhelmed by this book. Cora is a protagonist I could just not connect with. Many of her choices made me to want to throw my book across the room. While this is described as similar to Arrival, Cora is a interpreter who is aided by a implant in her brain that translates alien language. This didn't require her to learn anything in particular about their language and the fact that she studies linguistics was a red herring.

While this book has creative descriptions of what first contact with aliens could be, it fails at making me care about any of the human characters. I was more interested in Ampersand then the human he seeks to communicate through. The important existential questions about what a advanced alien civilization could mean to humanity was briefly touched on but never explored.

The book was fast paced, and the last one hundred pages kept me wanting more, which is what pushed this from a 2 star to a 3 star read. It's just an OK sci-fi , which is light on the science and failed to have much emotional payoff. The human, alien relationship became deep and meaningful without much to explain why it would head in that direction.
Profile Image for Greg Chatham.
54 reviews4 followers
July 27, 2020
This was just embarrassing.

Overwritten and obtuse, Lindsay Ellis' first novel is in desperate need of a complete editorial overhaul. From the amateurish insistence on passive voice...

"The voice belonged to Demi."

...to the cartoonish depictions of the protagonist's emotions...

"Cora thundered, her words reverberating through the trees, through the atmosphere, through the entire galaxy, through space, through time and eternity."

...to the downright bizarre descriptions of violence...

"The walls of her wound canyons were shiny and pink, stripped of their clotting, but devoid of the blood that normally rushed out when blood clots were torn off."

...Axiom's End alternates between the writing style of a Reddit post and a self-published horror novel.

It can also be aggressively difficult to parse, particularly when it comes to interchangeable proper nouns and character relationships. Ellis constantly refers to Cora's parents by their first names, which makes it sound like they're some weird adults she used to live with, not people she's related to. And while some leeway can be given in regards to the alien species she eventually encounters, it's ultimately a problem of clarity that persists throughout the entire book.

For example...

"Nils had leaked a few days after the Fremda Memo that the Altadena Event had a CIA code name, 'Ampersand,' which had been colloquially adopted by everyone, even mainstream outlets. Cora found it a little odd that Luciana still called it by its old name."

Having finished Axiom's End, I can tell you what that paragraph is supposed to mean. But appearing as it does in chapter two, it's not intriguing. It's just baffling. And the sense that you're still not quite getting what Ellis is trying to tell you never dissipates.

There are some neat ideas buried later in the book. There's some cool physiological stuff going on with the aliens (the extended info dump about alien biology, language, and culture in the middle is actually pretty interesting) and Cora's relationship with the her alien protector... gets weird.

But in the end, this is one of those books where you get to the overly-indulgent acknowledgements at the end, see all the names listed, and think, "Why didn't somebody say something?!?"
Profile Image for Dave.
2,980 reviews321 followers
August 13, 2021
Axiom's End channels that curiosity we have about what First Contact would look like. And, as we found out in ET, in Close Encounters, in Stranger in a Strange Land, and in Ender's Game, when they finally arrive (or return), the aliens will be nothing like we ever imagined and our interactions with them will be like nothing we conceived. On the way, we explore the very nature of governmental cover-ups (hello, Area 51) and the nature of truth and to what extent is omission like lying.

Axiom's End starts out quite unassuming with a twenty something college dropout and her estranged conspiracy nut father and the guys in the black SUVs. But, hold on to your hats, cause it quickly becomes a journey you didn't quite realize you were going on.

How on earth are we going to communicate with the aliens when they arrive and to what extent can we trust them.

Axiom's End is one of those surprising finds impossible to put down and great fun to read. It does what science fiction does best by intriguing, amazing, and making you wonder. Let's give it a solid five stars.
Profile Image for Jen - The Tolkien Gal.
446 reviews4,401 followers
September 21, 2020
This emotionally drained me. Is it because of the thoughtful take on the early noughties' political atmosphere, or is it due to the well-written characters, fully fleshed out and relatable in their struggles?

Nope. It's because inter-species romance is my crack and it makes me cry every time.

gif Fanart mass effect femshep garrus vakarian Shakarian Commander Garrus Romance Hyojin Bae •

Jokes aside I've seen this book being called The Three-Body Problem For Girls, which is a hilariously bad take. I see this trend among "serious book critics" which spins the narrative that female protagonist = book for females. This is stupid - an insult to women as well as gatekeeping reading for men.

Axiom's End is thoughtful, fast-paced and insightful book - most importantly a must read for Millennials - the throwback to the 2000s made me realise my childhood is now seen as retro. So this is what it feels like to be old, huh?

Rambling aside, I'm struggling to formulate a decent review for this, and will think it through. For now, enjoy my splurge-style writing. Still trying to slip into my review meat suit since being on hiatus.

David Romero on Twitter:

Credit to the artist, David Romero on twitter for this piece. Please do check his other stuff out.

Edit: Winterborn kindly pointed at that it was not a reviewer who called the book "The Three-Bodied Problem For Girls" but Lindsay herself. However, she did say it sarcastically so I likely assumed it had been said to her before. Thanks again!
Profile Image for Danielle.
790 reviews387 followers
May 23, 2021
I probably shouldn’t have even read this- as I’m not one to enjoy any SciFi. 😬 But my local bookclub named it our book choice and our theme this month was SciFi- so here I am. To be honest, this would have ended up on my DNF list, if I didn’t feel obligated to finish. 🛸👽 The whole ‘alien’ theme just isn’t for me. 🙁
Profile Image for Evan Doran.
13 reviews2 followers
June 24, 2020
Note: I received a copy of Axiom’s End through a Goodreads Giveaway. This did not influence the content of my review, but did influence me to write a review. Vague spoilers throughout, but significant spoilers are marked.

Overview/What’s It About?

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis follows Cora Sabino, an aimless former linguistics major, as she has the (mis)fortune of encountering an extraterrestrial lifeform known as Ampersand. As the government takes her family captive, she agrees to work as Ampersand’s translator and discover as much as she can about Ampersand’s people. Most of the book follows Cora’s increasing fears of xenocide against Earth as she learns about Ampersand and his past, with a conclusion that solves her immediate problems but doesn’t carry much weight.

In short, it’s…fine. Axiom’s End doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, and while its execution is competent, it doesn’t leave me excited or thinking about it after I’ve read it.


Unfortunately, many of the characters in Axiom’s End are one- or two-note throughout. They feel underdeveloped across the 370-page span, and don’t reveal anything particularly noteworthy thematically or in terms of voice.

Cora Sabino (formerly Ortega, after her whistleblower/tinfoil-hat hacker father Nils Ortega) is our entryway into the alternate 2007 of Axiom’s End. While the opening of the novel promised some interesting relationships between her, her aunt Luciana, and her father Nils, nothing really came of it. She loves her family—but forgets about them often when Ampersand promises some new piece of information (a fact that is pointed out late in the narrative…but never amounts to anything). She majored in linguistics, but that doesn’t really come into play. She can play guitar, which does lead to a good scene between her and Ampersand. Beyond that, I can’t really say anything. She doesn’t like liars, I suppose?

Ampersand is an alien, a fact that is repeated often throughout the novel. Despite other characters continually describing his (and his people’s) motives and feelings as “impossible to understand,” they’re really not. Ampersand is a very “ends justify the means” character, and his people are ethnic purists with a strict caste system who don’t see other sentient life as equal. While he’s less aggressive than his pursuers and at least willing to interface with humans, he doesn’t have much else to make him stand out. The back half of the novel introduces a romantic aspect to him, but it does very little to drive the thematics or energize the story.

Other characters recur through the story, but do little beyond their function. Sol Kaplan is an FBI agent who keeps information from Cora and is very suspicious of her. Luciana is Cora’s aunt, who has secrets of her own and never tells Cora until the worst possible moment. Cora’s mother and siblings appear at the start and are promptly shipped off-page where their safety is a Sword of Damocles over Cora’s head—one that she frequently forgets about. Nils Ortega, Cora’s father and the whistleblower mentioned on the back cover, is only present in occasional between-chapter emails and Cora’s “I hate this man” thoughts.


The prose is fine. There’s an occasional good description and it’s very clear, but there’s nothing standout here. Admittedly, this is very good in that it takes a lot of effort and experience to write prose free from awkward constructions (not a backhanded compliment—I mean this seriously), but you won’t be taking away any phenomenal lines or images.

I would guess Ellis chose to focus on clear prose and a single voice rather than anything fancy, and she’s succeeded.


For a book about First Contact and the existential threat of hostile extraterrestrials, Axiom’s End is surprisingly low-energy. I personally found the opening segment the most interesting, with Cora finding her life upended by the sudden one-two punch of an alien arrival and her father leaking details about hush-hush US government operations. I had thought there was potential for tense negotiations with alien peoples, complicated family drama, and life-or-death stakes for empathy…

…But while these sort-of came through, they felt very thin. Once Cora and Ampersand meet up, Axiom’s End is mostly a book about reacting to increasingly dire news—which will come into play few hundred years in the future. People talk about panic and frightening events, but nothing happens on the page to reflect that aside from the arrival of a hostile force in the last third of the book (who themselves don’t do too much). While existential threats are scary, they aren't really great at building the world contemporary to the story.

Negotiations with aliens? Mostly just trying to convince them to say anything. When an actual existential problem appears and Cora asks for Ampersand’s help, she’s met with an unchanging refusal.

Complicated family drama? Cora grows angry that Luciana lied to her. They argue, and just kind of sulk. Nothing more. Nils sends an ominous email at the end, but it isn’t relevant to anything that happens in the book besides tying up a plot thread that could have easily been explained as

Life-or-death stakes for empathy? It takes a while for Cora to ask if Ampersand sees humans as people. It takes even longer for him to indicate he feels there’s a possibility he does.


Despite the richness of Ellis’ critical work and her sharp eye for themes and tone therein, Axiom’s End does not explore its themes beyond a surface level.

“Truth is a human right,” or so the tagline goes, but this is largely unexplored. Cora doesn’t like lies. Nobody she meets likes telling the truth. Only when Cora finds out the truth can she have the background to take action and get anything done. The idea is there, but it ended up rather shallow.

Several characters throughout the novel insist that different species cannot understand one another and will ultimately try to reshape each other in their own image, but in the context of the novel this only results in worries about what Ampersand’s people will one day do to humanity. Ampersand and Cora don’t really influence each other all that much, and Ampersand’s people really aren’t that unknowable. They’re just xenophobic dictators. Ampersand does soften to Cora (and her to him), but the ending is left extremely open-ended in regards to this question.


To sort of recap what I said above, Axiom’s End is only okay. It doesn’t offer any new ideas to the genre, and it doesn’t execute its own all that thrillingly. I had hoped the novel would be excellent based on Ellis’ essay work, but it did not live up to those high standards. It hangs together, yes, and it’s readable—but it could have been a lot better.

If you just want a first contact story that rolls along, you might like it.
Profile Image for Tucker  (TuckerTheReader).
908 reviews1,583 followers
October 2, 2020

"Truth is a human right."

Reading this book felt like a fever dream, to be completely honest.

So, what's this book about?
It’s fall 2007. A well-timed leak has revealed that the US government might have engaged in first contact. Cora Sabino is doing everything she can to avoid the whole mess, since the force driving the controversy is her whistleblower father. Even though Cora hasn’t spoken to him in years, his celebrity has caught the attention of the press, the Internet, the paparazzi, and the government—and with him in hiding, that attention is on her. She neither knows nor cares whether her father’s leaks are a hoax, and wants nothing to do with him—until she learns just how deeply entrenched her family is in the cover-up, and that an extraterrestrial presence has been on Earth for decades.

Realizing the extent to which both she and the public have been lied to, she sets out to gather as much information as she can, and finds that the best way for her to uncover the truth is not as a whistleblower, but as an intermediary. The alien presence has been completely uncommunicative until she convinces one of them that she can act as their interpreter, becoming the first and only human vessel of communication. Their otherworldly connection will change everything she thought she knew about being human—and could unleash a force more sinister than she ever imagined.

This book was like if E.T. and Alien had a baby and that baby started taking drugs. I really, really enjoyed this book. It was so fascinating and strangely comforting.

As I do with a few books I read, I completely immersed myself in the main characters, Cora. Sometimes, it happens with some books. I am not watching the character. I am the character. Anywho, Cora and I were in it for the long haul.

When things started to happen and Cora was basically on the run from the government and an alien, I felt her fear and curiosity. When she was kidnapped by the alien and pulled into a strange adventure, I was hooked. I was fascinated and couldn't wait to see what happened next.

Now, let me take a second to talk about Ampersand. He is one of my favorite alien/fantastic characters I've read in a while. He's like a morally gray Aslan. He was so cute and innocent but also dark and brooding all at the same time. I loved him and I cannot wait to see more of him.

Overall, this book was... very strange but I really enjoyed it and I am really looking forward to the sequel.

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Profile Image for Alena.
404 reviews155 followers
February 16, 2022
I feel so bad for not liking this book. You see, I've been watching Lindsay's channel for years, I love her essays and humor, she is super smart and entertaining. But, unfortunately, her debut novel didn't work for me at all.

My main problem was with the main character Cora. She is young, lost, inexperienced, and scared all the time. For most of the book she is constantly told what to do and taken to different places either in secret or while being unconscious. She is not a fully passive character, but for the most part she was weak and didn't know what to do. And yet I'm supposed to believe that she is the most important human on Earth and the only one able to communicate with an alien (again, not because she is skilled or achieved it herself, she just had a chip inserted in her head against her will). She then somehow started to assign genders to these aliens, recognize their postures and face expressions which was also impossible for me to believe because it's constantly stated that these aliens kinda look like giant insect looking machines. Same goes for her friendship and even infatuation with an alien, it was just too out there for me.

Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin's Press for my digital review copy.
Profile Image for Mari.
701 reviews4,619 followers
November 23, 2020

2....75 stars?

I had a time with this book. Directly after reading it, it felt like a 3 star read, but after some reflection, it turns out I had more negative than positive to say about the individual pieces of this story, even if the whole was fine.

Good things: We take off almost immediately in this book and I found myself hooked as soon as we meet our main character and watch her head off for what should be a normal day at work. Even when things went a little south, storytelling wise, I was invested and I ultimately wanted to know how things would end. While I'm not entirely sold on the decision to set this book in 2007, the details that rooted it in that time period were fun.

I had fun hearing Cora (and by extension Ellis) kind of muse over ~humanity~ and the big idea of aliens and humans not being able to peaceably coexist because of difference in morals. I enjoy Ellis and there was a keen observation and a bit of snark here that comes across in her writing. It was smart in very Ellis ways. Also very Ellis? The relationship between Cora and Ampersand. Truly, it was sort of mesmerizing to watch it develop.

Not so good things: This could've used an overall tightening. Turns out, after that breakneck beginning, we slow down into a first encounter story that is very introspective. There was so much time waiting around and looking at things that it started to wear on me. I'm fine with an introspective book-- love them actually-- but this story managed uneven pacing. It either needed less words or more action.

I liked Cora as a main character, but the huge caveat is that I feel like Cora's personality and responses often felt like they were serving the plot rather than a product of her characterization. Better pacing and some editing could've had that feeling like growth throughout the story.

It's clear to me that Ellis has given lots of thoughts to her aliens, their society, function and mechanics. I'll admit that sometimes I felt a little lost amidst all her terms and code names and what it all meant. It fed into the overall feeling that this story could've benefited from less words overall. I got to the end understanding that there were connections between our various aliens that never sunk into my head, and so I was probably missing the full effect of the big showdowns at the end.

I would continue reading in the series, and I think Ellis's stories will only continue to get better and stronger. This one just sort of suffered for a number of things that were almost there but not quite yet.
Profile Image for Emily St. James.
102 reviews205 followers
May 3, 2020
Lindsay is a friend, so I shouldn't review this in any real sense, because I am in this book's corner. But I think it's a lot of fun, with a really involving plot and incredible amounts of forward momentum. The central relationship between human and alien is really well done, and I ended up being surprisingly involved in it.

Anyway, read it! Enrich my friend!
Profile Image for ALet.
277 reviews241 followers
August 4, 2020
★★★ /5
This was a really fast read.
I loved the writing style, it was really engaging and easy to understand, not too flowery but also not too dry. I enjoyed the main character point of view, her action and thought process were interesting to follow. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy the plot, in my opinion it was a little bit too predictable.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,907 followers
November 9, 2020
I suppose, after reading a few hundred first-contact novels and/or movies, I should really read this book as a study of all the things that came before, rather than trying to put this on the same level as Arrival (movie) or Blindsight (book) or Deepness in the Sky (book). Or about 30-40 others that may be better than this.

That isn't to say that this was a bad book. Far from it. But it's dealing with old tropes. Cyborg aliens? Coverups? Translation issues? Fundamental communication breakdown based on a basic alien idea of futility? Sure. I can buy it. It isn't bad. Transformers have been around for a long time.

HOWEVER, I get the feeling that this novel wasn't really aiming at being groundbreaking. It tried to focus quite heavily on the whistleblowing aspect. The MC's father was a Snowden-like character and the entire tale takes place in the 2000s and the milieu shows. The new direction, the focus on linguistics, kinda felt like a poor-mans version of Arrival, especially since the handwavium ear implant could theoretically have been given to ANYONE. It was just more convenient to stick with Cora for narrative reasons. But honestly? After we get away from being Snowden's daughter/coverup tangent I couldn't really buy the whole ex-temp worker becomes essential translator schtick.

If I turned off my mind and just went along for the ride, I was okay. It was entertaining enough. But by the end, I wasn't all over this book. It felt kinda like Meyer's Host by the end.
Profile Image for jade.
489 reviews283 followers
January 1, 2021
“looking into his eyes was like looking into ten billion years of history, like she could see the particles and rocks and gasses coalesce over eons, until somehow, impossibly, here they both were.”

i’ll be the first to come out and admit that i bought this book because i’ve been a longtime fan of lindsay ellis’ work as a film critic and youtuber. i genuinely believe her videos are insightful, and i love her brand of humor.

that said, i can also easily admit that her debut novel is not entirely flawless.

in axiom’s end, we follow the slightly lethargic and down-on-her-luck cora sabino, a colleague dropout in her early twenties trying to deal with holding down a job while being the daughter of the world’s most famous (and sought after) whistleblower.

to make things even harder, she inadvertently gets pulled into a big mess of a situation and ends up as the only human interpreter / translator for an alien race that’s been hanging around on earth for god knows how long. specifically, for one particular alien: the elusive ampersand, who plays his cards very close to his chest.

cue government conspiracies, area 51 vibes, lots of men in black suits, and aliens whose motivations remain uncomfortably unknown.

to me, this book read fast and popcorn-y. its inspirations are quite easy to see and ellis herself has always been upfront about them, too: movies like independence day (1996), men in black (1997), and transformers (2007) inform both its narrative structure and its overall atmosphere. it’s got a zany, contemporary approach to sci-fi, and a visual, cinematic quality to it.

at the same time, i felt it suffers from the same issues most of those movies do: it glosses over A LOT (except the aliens, but more on that later). there were so many moments where i went, “is that really how [insert organization] would operate?” or “why are we here again?” and “are we really hopping back and forth because of dumb fucking decisions, AGAIN?”

cora and ampersand are constantly dragged -- or drag themselves -- across the country on impromptu road trips or in the back of government-approved vans to escape something, be it either blackbagging or Aliens Doing Alien Things.

but as the reader, we are firmly stuck with cora, never having full clarity on the government’s OR the aliens’ plans, and never having full agency to move the plot along.

combine that slightly passive nature with a lot of quick ‘n easy movie shorthand (government agents playing good cop / bad cop, government possibly holding cora’s family hostage, big military facilities, etc.) and that kind of cheapened the whole reading experience for me.

i never felt genuinely fearful of what might happen because i never got enough details, and some of the threats and side-plots were a bit distantly cartoonish to me.

for example, there’s cora’s father nils, who most overtly represents the novel’s theme: truth, or rather the ramifications of keeping it from others. as a whistleblower, he’s always over any cover-up scandal he can find, and ampersand’s presence on earth is no different.

we never meet or speak to him directly; his presence is only made known in the story through various interviews and articles. and we see how cora perceives him: as an absent father who exploits his family for his own gain, and subsequently she has a lot of reservations about reestablishing contact with him.

i thought his looming presence was a nice addition, but because nils never fully interacts with the main plot, it felt like he was mostly there to represent the theme and talk about how truth is a human right. he never felt like a real, tangible character.

unlike ampersand, whose relationship with cora is the true heart and focus of this story.

the blurb and premise might trick you into thinking this is more of a sci-fi thriller, but that vastly underplays the importance of their relationship and the perspective through which the entire story is presented.

we see most of the aliens’ culture, language, and habits through their dynamic, which starts off rather rocky due to ampersand forcibly enlisting cora’s reluctant help. the ‘first contact’ hurdles these two have to take together creates a believable immersion that permeated the entire text, and it was in their discussions of space, evolution, and power that the book truly reached its heights.

i finally felt the scope, weight, and weirdness of being humans in such a vast galaxy that i always love so much about the sci-fi genre, and at the same time they also had many hilarious moments of genuine confusion between them.

ellis plays a lot with alien versus human perceptions there, and that was rather fun to see. ampersand, who is a highly advanced creature with an appearance somewhere between a praying mantis, bird, and dragon, comes off as highly intimidating to the average human.

meanwhile, the average human is also quite intimidating to him

ampersand also represents the alien side of the ramifications of covering up the truth, and does so in a more natural and organic way than cora’s father nils. he isn’t always forthcoming with information about his species and his goals, and often keeps information from both cora and the united states government (AND his fellow aliens) to a point of immense frustration for everyone.

though subsequent reveals might not be very surprising, it still laid interesting enough groundwork during the climax for me to look forward to the sequel.

one final criticism: ellis’ prose is… unpolished at best.

most of the time, it does what it has to do, and at other times it is strangely clunky and has some unnecessary padding. there are a lot of legitimate criticisms of this in most reviews, and i’m afraid i agree with all of them.

there’s also the issue that ellis’ deadpan snark and laidback witty comments in her videos don't translate all that well to a written medium. she references memes and internet sayings quite a bit, which can be fun for those who are aware of what she’s doing, but it often still creates somewhat stilted writing.

an example:
“they [the eyes] took up so much facial real estate that there wasn't room for much else, positioned more on the sides of the head like a deer's than front facing like a human's.”

in conclusion, axiom’s end is a fun first contact novel that would be an easy entry point for readers new to the sci-fi genre because it relies on a contemporary setting and feels very cinematic. for me personally, it lacked the depth to fully come to fruition. my enjoyment mostly came from ampersand and cora’s dynamic, not from any of the other aspects of the novel.

i will still continue the series when the next book comes out, mostly because i’m curious to see if ellis will reach that depth of theme and detail that i’m craving -- especially since she’s since said that axiom’s end is mostly build-up for the other books in the series.

3.0 stars.
Profile Image for Sarah.
333 reviews16 followers
March 27, 2020
I requested this arc because I really enjoy Lindsay's film criticism on YouTube, and hoped that would be enough to overcome the sci-fi, as that remains one of my struggle genres.
Unfortunately, I couldn't connect with the characters, at any point. I could buy into trauma leading to an emotional connection between Cora and Ampersand in the macro - but upon a mild second ponder, what would attract him to Cora? And I'm speaking mentally, not in judgement of her (oft discussed) rachet root situation. I just felt we lost so much of her character while she acted as interpreter for Ampersand - there isn't a lot of room for development when your MC's main function in the story is to be the mouthpiece for another.
I also didn't understand why this needed to have the backdrop of the financial crisis - the NINJA mortgages still exist in a world also grappling with first contact (!?), you don't need both problems to blow up the stock market.
I don't want to harp on, as this is a debut, and judging by the other reviews posted so far, I am the outlier - but it really didn't work for me.
Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an arc for review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.
Profile Image for Carrie.
3,087 reviews1,511 followers
July 22, 2020
Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis is the first book of the science fiction Noumena series. This one takes readers back to an alternate version of 2007 and gives them a glimpse at alien contact that of course the government wants covered up.

Cora Sabino has not spoken to her father in years but she often hears his speeches on the state of the world and aliens. Cora never expected there to actually be any contact with aliens but one night she and the rest of her family experience a blackout as odd things began happening.

After Cora comes around she heads out of her home in search of the family dog but while she’s out big black SUVs arrive. Cora goes on the run not knowing what is happening to her family and soon Cora comes into contact with an alien visitor which seems to have done something to Cora that night so that he can communicate through her.

I have to say Axiom’s End is one of those books I enjoyed parts of then other parts found myself getting a tad bored with the story. The pacing seemed to be somewhat decent but for me the main character felt awfully young and I had to keep reminding myself this was even supposed to be adult and not young adult but the feeling kept coming over some of those “dumb” moves moments to me. So overall for me this one really turned into just one of those juse OK novels where I wished for a bit more.

I received an advance copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

For more reviews please visit https://carriesbookreviews.com/
2 reviews2 followers
July 31, 2020
Spoilers ahead.
So I guess how much you enjoyed The Shape of Water is a good litmus for whether or not you’ll like this novel— if the answer is yes, I think you’ll enjoy so read this review no further.

My first thought is that the way that everything about how the novel was constructed read and felt more like a TV pilot than anything else, and I think if absolutely nothing changed I would have enjoyed everything about Axiom’s End much more if it were in visual format.

I really wanted to like this but just simply could not really engage with it for more than a couple pages at a time. The themes that Lindsay is exploring with language and translation as a way to explore differences between species (where I suppose we can extrapolate to other differences like race, culture, gender, etc….) are things that I truly anticipated seeing her grapple with!

I found it incredibly difficult to conceptualise Cora as an individual. I almost wonder if this was on purpose for the meaning and themes, because by the end of the novel Ampersand is actually the most vivid character of all. Cora has to be the way that the reader receives information, she’s how all the other characters are characterised, her being Ampersand’s interpreter is the main driving force of the entire plot. The girl has no time to be herself, and I really felt this. I couldn’t relate to why she reacted to certain pieces of information, I couldn’t relate to the decisions she made. I think the biggest disconnect is that at the beginning she's allergic to this news about the aliens because she doesn't want to think about anything related to her father, but she then ends up having this natural curiosity for them anyway and I think this tension could have been dealt with more explicitly at least once if not throughout.

There’s something about the prose that I think needs to be heavily revised. Clarity seems to be the top priority, and I can see why since the novel takes place in a different time “period” and also deals with alien species. But I think this actually did the concept a disservice. There needed to be more extended pieces of description to break up the pace of the events and allow places for readers to dwell, catch up, and react. Any metaphors or similes that were used to describe what was happening ended up reading as melodramatic or out of place compared to the rest of the efficient prose. The actual most vivid image I got from the novel was the bit about the stolen groceries and “slivers of olive”, and I wish it was something else.

More importantly, there wasn’t a clear enough distinction between the narrator’s voice, Cora’s voice (if there isn’t supposed to be a marked distance, I think it would help if there was), and the voices of the other characters. It seemed like it didn’t matter who was speaking unless it was one of the aliens, because a lot of the dialogue was being used to convey information anyway. The thing is I know Lindsay has a distinct and great sense of humour— it felt at once too present and too watered down throughout. If her voice was even more consistently hers I think it would have helped any reader regardless if they were familiar with her other work online.

Truth is a human right.
The political element of the novel falls waaayyyyy too far to the wayside and I feel this needs to be way stronger. We’re told this is Nils’s slogan just for the fact he likes watching the world burn. Fine. But “truth” also suddenly becomes one of the things that Cora will live and die for. But truth is also too loose and often too interchangeable with simple “information” for this to be the tagline for one of the major themes of the novel. I think more than truth, intelligence is more accurate and ties together the government conspiracy element with the interspecies exchange element much more.

”This is existential!”
I dislike this line a lot because it’s the most egregious instance of things being “told” and not “shown” in this novel. I don’t like that its not clear enough to either Cora or the reader that things are “existential” until this minor villain (?) announces that it is.

It’s told to the reader many times that Cora is doing most everything out of an instinct for “survival” but she finds time to read Harry Potter, play her guitar, holds grudges with Luciana over semantics, and mostly forgets about her family who she believes are in CIA custody….. I just don’t know man.

I guess I’m confused over morality because it’s a theme in general but there are problems with clarity over what Cora believes is moral or not moral at a given time and it seems to be governed by her emotions. The tension she has with Luciana, Nils, and Demi aren’t explained—angst and trauma are valid reasons, but there’s next to no expansion on these reasons and so they still feel unconvincing. Her positive relationships are with her baby sister, her dogs, and her new alien boyfriend (?), which again are only those who she has personally seen as helpless without her. By the end of the novel it’s clear Cora’s greatest virtue and downfall is her instinct to protect those she thinks are helpless but there isn’t rich enough detail to convey any of this. When she compares Cefo's to Olive during an autopsy, when she compares the Genome to an abused dog and small eight year old girl and also marginally repulsive, when she wakes up from almost dying and sees the face of her mother after a harrowing couple of weeks she asks about her two dogs......... I'm saying that these moments felt misplaced to me to convey this aspect of Cora's character.

She writes off her brother because he seems sneaky and was her father’s favourite, she’s ready to leave Esperas to die because he’s been uncommunicative since the beginning (even after understanding from Ampersand why all of the aliens are wary of humans), there’s nothing to humanise about Victor Park (beyond the fact he’s good looking?) until he’s dead. She's caught up overt the idea that Ampersand has ever killed anything ever, but on the flip side she's telling him to kill Obelus because Bad despite knowing Fremdan kin relationships work differently. And then she's trying to kill Obelus with a shovel in this extended graphic passage. I get the point is that everything is morally grey and you always have to pick and choose but Cora just seems to flip between what's okay and what's not too cavalierly.

Instead of real morally grey characters, there is a lot of murkiness through which I can see the values and questions that the author wants the reader to consider. And when the politics and moral values of any of the characters aren’t seen to have a clear rhyme or reason this weakens all of the themes and seems potentially dangerous to me.

The Alien Boyfriend™
I'm not familiar with sci-fi or even the idea that "First Contact" is even a type of story within the genre so my focus is on this idea of the monster-relationship trope which didn't work for me in this novel either. I thought it was interesting the concept that Ampersand was growing more and more able to connect with Cora, to express himself properly in language, to understand mannerisms etc. The whole "do you consent?" thing was an interesting way to include that Conversation in this context— but for me it seemed like it'd just gone out the window when he decided to just Jacob-in-Twilight Imprint / fusion-bond with her. They hadn't seemed to really establish this level of familiarity beforehand and the way he explained the decision seemed too offhand to me in the end. The fact that it seems impossible to explain in human terms what fusion bonding even is has me just.......suspicious and huh??.

The way the Pequods were conceptualised didn't really seem like an imagining of what an advanced "post-natural" alien civilisaiton would be like. It seemed more like the species and the structures (Autocrat, technocrat, Oligarch, propagandists....) were designed so that they could be used to Say Things about structures we know on earth. And this didn't end up paying off at all because the political element was underexplored.

Representation (?)
I don't know if this is a technicality because it relates to a major premise in the book— but there was something about the fact that the Pequods only managed to take peasants from medieval Europe to experiment on that was kind of off to me. This seemed designed just so that there would be a sliver of a reason as to why Ampersand's algorithm works on modern American English dialect. With the existential question on the table there's a lot of talk of "human language" or whatever, but the fact is they're speaking English and there has to be a Eurocentric element?? Or are we supposed to believe Ampersand can speak Mandarin or Arabic as well?

That a kind of stereotypical idea of medieval Europe is used is also tiring to me. The "religious zealots" idea is too tropish, and if this is a Cora-specific thing with the "Catholic on her" I guess I'd understand, but otherwise it's asking a bit much for the aliens to base humanity on this stereotype.

I don't know what to do with how the different aliens have been gendered— the Genome is a she, Ampersand is a he, Obelus sounds "androgynous". When Cora insists the Genome is female, is that a feminist gesture or...? And I guess we're gonna have to assume that Cora is bi?

All the mentions of skin colour, ethnicity, hair colour, even that Cora herself is Latinx end up being irrelevant, but the premise of the series is on dealing with difference. I guess these ideas will be mobilised more since this is supposed to be a series but at this stage these mentions of diversity without full exploration read as awkward if not arbitrary.
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,036 reviews510 followers
November 30, 2020
Most of all, deepest thanks to President Ronald Reagan, who deregulated the hell out of children’s television programming in the early 1980s (among many other things), and without whom Transformers would not exist.

One star off for a thoroughly lame ending. I know that Goodreads lists this as the first part of a series, but the actual book makes no reference to it. And then even if this is only the first book, no reason to saddle it with such a perfunctory ending.

The main problems I have with ‘Axiom’s End’ are highlighted in an interview with Lindsay Ellis herself: She said that her aliens were way too ‘human’, but that they had turned out that way for narrative purposes; and that her publisher had asked her to tone down the linguistic and scientific jargon.

It is a book like this that makes me realise I am something of an SF snob. ‘Axiom’s End’ falls into that peculiar sub-genre of ‘SF books for people who do not like to read SF’. Interestingly, this made the final round of the 2020 Goodreads Choice Awards. Last year’s winner, ‘Recursion’ by Blake Crouch, also falls into that category of The Genre That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

I think of all the SF themes for a writer to tackle, First Contact has to be one of the most difficult. Not only has it been done to death and beyond, it has become increasingly politicised and entangled with ancillary zeitgeist concerns. Writers-with-chops like Paul McAuley can get away with it, and still have fun and make it seem all weird and fresh, with seminal novels like ‘Something Coming Through’ (2015) and ‘Into Everywhere’ (2016), where the Jackaroo are a masterclass in that ephemeral ‘sense of wonder’ that the best SF does so well. A more recent example is the superb ‘Semiosis’ (2018) by Sue Burke.

The trouble with SF is that, with a theme like First Contact, you are bound to invoke all kinds of different associations and contexts in a reader’s mind, depending on how well-versed they are in the genre. ‘Axiom’s End’ reminded me of everything from ‘Alien’ to ‘E.T.’ and, definitely to its detriment, ‘The Shape of Water’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (especially the last section, which I wish Ellis had scrapped in its entirety. I just did not buy into that particular plot twist at all.)

I don’t want to say too much about the relationship between Cora and Ampersand, except that it is quite ballsy of Ellis to frame the entire book pretty much in the context of their developing human/alien interaction. Many of the other characters are secondary, or curiously in the case of the main conspiracy theorist who sets the plot in motion, make no appearance at all, except by means of quoted documentation.

I had a bit of trouble parsing the period the book is set in, which I think is 2007. There is another thread to the narrative about truth being an inalienable human right, and how governments manipulate information as a form of control and domination, that I found far more interesting than learning about Ampersand’s home world and caste set-up, to be honest.

Still, this is a fast-paced and engrossing read. I do think it is more of an introduction to the Hollywood idea of First Contact than it either extends or subverts its thematic development in literary SF, but that is probably only my genre snobbery showing. If Ellis can get people who normally raise an eyebrow at the very mention of ‘SF’ to read a novel about aliens-on-earth, then it is a job very well done.
Profile Image for Claude's Bookzone.
1,484 reviews189 followers
September 29, 2020
3.5 Stars

Well that was interesting.

It took me a while to work out whether I liked this novel or not. I confess I read it twice as I had such mixed feelings. The second reading was much better as I had my ‘fun YA sci-fi’ lens on and not my ‘deep exploration of human existence in the wider context of life throughout the universe’ lens.

At first I found Cora to be intensely annoying. She is immature and whiny so it made for unpleasant reading. Then I decided I was being quite unfair as I don’t know anyone who would be calm and mature if an alien abducted them and implanted something in their head. I guess her emotional breakdowns and fragile state were quite justified under the circumstances. She was also an incredibly passive character in that she seemed to have little to no control over what was happening. She spent most of the story being told when she was or wasn’t needed.

I liked the ‘Roswell-esque’ conspiracy theory plot too, but this was really underdeveloped given that “Truth is a human right” is the tagline. The aliens were sufficiently interesting characters with a complex hierarchy but I can’t say I felt invested in their journey. I enjoyed the interpretation elements and that the book looked at how essential communication is in building working relationships.

I think the main issue I had was that it felt too long. The story would have had more tension if it had been trimmed a wee bit. I know the author wanted to focus on the developing relationship between Ampersand and Cora but I feel like a few of these scenes could have been cut, some of the CIA type scenes shortened, and a lot less focus on the family angst. Just my opinion because I found my mind wandering at some points during this novel.

Lastly, and it pains me to say this, but I don't think the story had any real depth. In a ‘first contact’ sci-fi book, I would expect to see more exploration of larger existential type themes. I mean Cora discovers ‘we are not alone�� and ‘the alien species might wipe out the human race’ so I expected a bit more of a conversation around this. I normally wouldn’t comment as I have read a lot of YA sci-fi, but the tone set in this one feels like the author may have been trying to examine this to a certain extent but then doesn’t quite deliver. Instead we get an ‘aliens are people too and the fact that I am kinda falling for one proves that’ storyline (it has been compared to Twilight). The plot also meandered a bit as there were too many threads that the author was trying to weave in.

I still enjoyed the book and appreciated the moments of dry humour. It’s all about expectations with this book I reckon. Make no mistake Readers, this is an action packed YA sci-fi adventure story.
Profile Image for R.K. Gold.
Author 13 books10.1k followers
November 30, 2020
3.5 stars rounding up

I really wanted to give it a full 4 but the climax dragged it down. Don’t get me wrong, this was better than anything I could’ve created and I enjoyed most of it, but my suspension of disbelief was stretched a little too thin once Cora started beating the all powerful giant alien with a shovel. It was explained at the end of the book how they formed the strong almost co-dependent bond but having just seen the giant client destroy a military base a chapter before this badass shovel attack image didn’t work (for me).

What makes this book so enjoyable is voice. voice voice voice. Lindsay has built a career with her humor and intelligence and both shine through in this book in Cora’s voice. The vocabulary used to describe the world and Cora’s internal dialogue flowed smoothly and created engaging interactions. Even when Cora was nesting in a government base and paralyzed by fear for the safety of her mom and siblings, her voice carried the story along and kept me entertained.

The big questions that were point blank stated in dialogue offered a unique element to the story. I thought it was good to put the cards on the table and have characters who were now aware of intelligent life to openly be curious about the impacts on the rest of the universe. One regularly visited question was morality and the anthropomorphism of non-human species. To Ampersand his actions were completely justified in a way that Cora could understand and to illustrate this we had Cora do her best to explain what it means to be human (like describing music and sex) to him. It started by showing the small differences of their species, then grew to their governments and lifestyles, before finally reaching their questions of higher purpose. These interactions were my favorite portions of the book because they touched on blue-orange morality, which is something I don’t see too often in fiction.

I’ll absolutely continue the series and continue to be a fan of Lindsay.
Profile Image for danny.
220 reviews
June 22, 2020
I loved this book, it was a pleasure to read the whole way through, and it explored some fascinating ideas of real substance with great heart and feeling.

The pace was excellent, the plot was excellent, the characters seemed real, flawed, and likeable.

At times, the book was hilarious and I laughed out loud. Yet it also dove into sharply realistic descriptions of trauma and genocide. But despite these heavy subjects, I never felt weighed down or depressed, like I often do when books root themselves in dark subjects. I was insulated by a sense of hope and love for humanity/sentient life that the author managed to evoke throughout.

My one complaint was the prose. It wasn't terrible, but there were a lot of verbal cliches, and those tend to bother me. But honestly, everything else about the book was so great that I completely tuned that out by the end of the second chapter.

If I get my job at the bookstore back after the pandemic, I'm going to be hand selling this one.

Thank you to the folks at Macmillan for sending the ARC to our store!
Profile Image for Andrea.
105 reviews55 followers
August 1, 2020
aliens bro, amirite?

I thought this book was really fun and full of unexpected monster fucker goodness. But, still, I had one problem with this book that dampened it a little for me. Cora, the protagonist, is coded as Latinx, but we are never really given any more insight into that identity except for the fact that she calls her grandma, "Abuelita". I understand that Cora is supposed to be white Latinx, but I think Ellis missed a great opportunity to relate her alien invasion storyline, in particular when dealing with refugees, to her main character's immigrant background. We never see the intersectionality of Cora's identities and as such, never get the full scope of Cora's reactions to everything going on in the book.It is especially evident when pitting it against the background in which this book takes place in-- late 2007. In 2007, there was the giant failed immigration bill, and in 2006/7 there were the giant immigration reform protests, including the very famous May Day "A day Without Immigrants" nationwide event. It's true that a Latinx identity does not define a person, nor should a white author try to make it so, but I do believe that Cora fundamentally would have had a lot of layered feelings because of where she falls in the diaspora. In the sequels to come, I hope to see Ellis restructure Cora's inner feelings with this in mind, but yeah I couldn't deal with the vague Latinx background given to Cora. It felt like she was a spicy white-- just to give even more vague diversity points to this book.
Profile Image for Eda**.
699 reviews444 followers
Want to read
July 22, 2020


Lemme just say that I never expected my Youtube "geeky" cinephile world to clash with the (lately criminally neglected by yours truly) book world but...it's vastly appreciated.

Lindsay Ellis wrote a book and it's already out guys!


Profile Image for Kevin Hall.
36 reviews4 followers
April 23, 2020
This book is going to be HUGE. It has everything: George Bush being a dumbass, governmental subterfuge, intergalactic sexual tension, and interplanetary linguistic intrigue.
Profile Image for Iris.
306 reviews314 followers
June 22, 2020
I didn’t review this book right away because I wasn’t sure if my love for Lindsay Ellis was bleeding over to my love for this book.

But that’s bullshit, this is a fan-fucking-tastic book. I would never recommend this book to someone that doesn’t like science fiction. This book was written for people that love sci-fi!

Since the book isn't out yet, I'm letting you know minor spoilers ahead!:

I’ll admit that I’m not that well read in science fiction, but I saw similar themes and tropes to my favorite science fiction books (Dawn by Octavia Butler and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor). There is a young adult girl named Cora that has failed out of her college scholarship and is swept up in a chain of alien related events that leave her dependent on an extraterrestrial.

The alien quickly named Ampersand, and Cora develops a kind and dynamic relationship throughout the novel. And this relationship ended up being my favorite part of this book. However, that doesn’t negate the harder aspects of this sci-fi world Ellis has created. I really loved the depth of difference this book investigates into a realistic account of what it /would/ be like if aliens landed on earth.

And the mind worm that has been hanging around since I finished the book, was the discussion on what are the limits to the universe and intelligence. It was fast paced, weird, and unsettling, just as I think sci-fi should be. Highest of high marks from me!
Profile Image for Michael.
284 reviews17 followers
July 21, 2020
(Note: I received an ARC of this novel from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own and have not been influenced.)

I don't normally watch video essays on YouTube. It takes a very specific kind of personality to get me interested enough to watch anything on YouTube for more than 10 minutes - especially something that's just analyzing something else. But Lindsay Ellis is one of those YouTubers who can get me to watch an hour-long video and enjoy it. So, when I heard about her debut novel, Axiom's End, I was excited to give it a read. And I was even more excited about it when I heard it was a science fiction/alternate history novel about humanity's first contact with an alien species. That kind of story is one of my favorite kinds of science fiction stories and I was eager to see what kind of a take Ellis would have on it. Having now read the book, I can say that it wasn't really what I expected at all. Ellis certainly puts her own spin on the first-contact genre, weaving a pretty interesting tale and delivering a book that, while a bit difficult to initially get into, makes for a compelling and enjoyable read.

First things first: I found this book difficult to get into, but once I got into it, I was really into it. Allow me to explain. From page one, we're thrown headfirst into the story, with no time to get our bearings. The novel begins on the day California experiences a second strange meteor crash within the same month. There's no easing into the story; the plot is already in motion and we're left to just try and keep up with it. There's no time to properly adjust to what's going on or what anyone's relationship with each other is because things just have to keep going. It's like watching a TV series but skipping the pilot. You can mostly follow what's going on, but you never quite shake the feeling of having missed something vitally important. And all of this is surrounded by some prose that initially feels very clunky. Though, more on that shortly.

So, as the book opens, everybody is already on edge and we don't understand why until a little later. In those opening pages, we also learn a lot about Cora, our protagonist, and her relationship with Nils, her Edward Snowden/Julian Assange-esque father who has just made some kind of bombshell announcement that Cora has no interest in learning about (though Nils ends up factoring into the story a lot less than you'd expect). Then, the meteor crashes and all hell breaks loose as we're very quickly introduced to more strands of the conspiracy that will stretch across the entire novel. Something breaks into Cora's house, terrifying her family. Government agents arrive and take her family into custody. Cora goes on the run. Cora starts to learn about the plot, only to suddenly end up somewhere else, having been kidnapped by something potentially extraterrestrial. Etc., etc. It's just... a lot that all happens incredibly quickly and it was often very difficult to follow. I felt like I needed an encyclopedia to understand what was going on and why. There was almost too much going on, to the point that it was a bit numbing. At times, it was like reading the Wikipedia summary of the novel instead of actually reading the story. It wasn't a very good experience and I was worried I was going to dislike the book.

Thankfully, this feeling didn't last too long. The first third of the novel takes us very quickly from Cora being extremely skeptical about aliens to Cora literally meeting an alien (named Ampersand), getting abducted by Ampersand, and agreeing to be Ampersand's translator as he goes about fulfilling his mission (which I won't spoil). And it's here where the book finally starts getting interesting, partially because it's the time when it finally slows down to start explaining what's been happening up to that point. From here on out, the plot is very interesting and it's delivered in easier-to-follow batches. I don't want to go into any detail about it because it's well worth experiencing as spoiler-free as possible, but once it finally gets going, it moves at a satisfying pace - fast enough that you never get bored but slow enough that you're able to follow it. There are times where I wished the novel would slow down a bit so that a particular theme or idea could be explored more fully, but I'd suspect some of that exploration is being saved for a future novel in this series.

Overall, the story is intricately plotted and thought out - which is both a positive and a negative. The world-building is excellent; it's set in 2007 and you can feel it almost immediately. There are references to Bush, the impending financial disaster of 2008, and tons and tons of mid-2000s pop culture. It's all very believable and it's an interesting time to set a story like this. The world-building seems to exist mainly to set up ideas for future books, but it didn't bother me much because the world that Ellis has created is one that I'd want to spend more time in. The details she shares here are important to this story but not so important that they need to dwarf everything else. It's just background, contextual information that enhances our understanding of everything that's going on. And it's great. But sometimes the details of everything are a little too intricate and it becomes difficult to follow all of the strands again. This doesn't happen very often, though, and Ellis is pretty quick to explain something, so it's more or less fine. On the whole, Axiom's End is a well-written and well-executed story that excited me, held my attention, and left me wanting more.

Ellis does a great job of avoiding the usual pitfalls of a first-contact story. The story isn't really about how all of humanity reacts to an alien presence; it's more about how Cora and Ampersand react to each other. Their story is what forms the heart of the novel and it's a delight to track it. They're both interesting characters with intriguing backgrounds, but unfortunately, both characters don't quite get equal development. In all honesty, Cora is one of those characters who are difficult to like. Her trauma defines her, and it's led her to be closed off and standoffish to people. This kind of character is not always very fun to spend an entire novel with, and Cora isn't a particularly sympathetic narrator at first. To be fair, Cora's unlikability is sort of the point. Ellis uses Cora's trauma as a contrast with Ampersand's, comparing and contrasting their experiences, and the scenes where the two of them discuss their pasts and how they're feeling about their presents tend to be among the best scenes of the novel. But it doesn't really change the fact that it's hard to connect with Cora until she meets Ampersand.

However, after that fateful meeting, Ampersand kind of steals all the attention away from Cora as he's significantly more interesting just by being a fish-out-of-water alien. But still, the connection the two of them share is easily the most interesting aspect of the novel - and it's clearly the stuff that Ellis most wanted to explore. The two of them push each other into some emotional places as they probe at each other's respective trauma and grow closer and it's so juicy to read. There's a hint of Beauty and the Beast to their relationship - though probably not in the way you'd expect. On the whole, their storyline is immensely interesting and the way Ellis uses them to explore the ideas of trauma and morality is particularly enjoyable. Like I said, Axiom's End is less about how society reacts to aliens but more how one specific human reacts to one specific alien, and how their shared experience influences their worldviews. And in that context, it's a great story.

Axiom's End is definitely a debut novel; it is both Lindsay Ellis's first published novel and also the first novel in a series of books involving Cora and Ampersand. Firstly, it reads like a debut novel in a few different ways. As I previously mentioned, the novel's prose is a bit rough at first. It often ranges between way too descriptive and not descriptive enough, frequently spending a lot of time describing things that don't seem to matter much in the long run while under-describing things that seem more important. And some of the word choices often feel as if Ellis is stretching to use different synonyms to avoid being repetitive instead of just describing what she's trying to describe more succinctly. Now, to be fair, there's nothing technically wrong with the prose; there are no glaring grammar errors or anything like that. My problems with the prose are probably more subjective and the result of my own preferences rather than something that's actually a problem. I personally don't enjoy overly descriptive prose and I tend to prefer more straightforward descriptions of things. But your mileage may vary there. I'm sure most won't find anything noteworthy about her prose. But for me, it was a bit clunky for a while - though I did eventually get used to it and found myself able to just go with what she was doing.

Secondly, Axiom's End is clearly the first part of a series of novels. While the main conflict is technically wrapped up by the book's end, the novel closes on a pretty big cliffhanger. I'd liken it to the feeling you get when you watch a season finale of a TV show: the season's main plotline is wrapped up, but the episode ends with the beginnings of the plotline that will form the narrative thrust of the show's subsequent season. That's exactly what happens with Axiom's End. And, to be fair, there's nothing wrong with that - as long as you know going into the book that you're not getting the entire story. Lindsay Ellis has been very forthright about this on her Twitter, trying to make sure that readers know they're reading the first part of a series, but the book's actual promotional material doesn't mention anything about the book being the first in a series, and I suspect that readers who aren't expecting a cliffhanger might be disappointed when they find one. So, here's your warning: this book ends on a cliffhanger. It's a damn good one, too, and it's left me eagerly anticipating the next book in the series. But, had I gone into this not knowing it was the beginning of a series, I'd have probably been annoyed by the cliffhanger. So, just be aware of that and know that a sequel has already been confirmed and is currently expected to come out next year.

All in all, Axiom's End is a pretty solid debut from Lindsay Ellis. While the first third of the novel is a bit dense and hard to get into, once the story gets moving it's very easy to get enveloped in all that's going on with Cora and Ampersand. It's a unique take on a first-contact story, focusing on the micro implications of a human and alien making contact rather than on the macro implications. Ellis brings a passion to the material; she clearly has something to say about humanity and how we interact with other species, and she does a great job of articulating this. Ellis does an equally impressive job of setting up an entire world here, teasing us with little references to all that's going on outside of Cora and Ampersand's story and leaving us wanting to explore more of this world. In much the same way, the book ends on a cliffhanger that deftly propels us into the next chapter of the story - which has, thankfully, already been announced for a 2021 publication. At the end of the day, Axiom's End is one of those books that takes a bit of time to get going, but once it does, you'll be extremely happy you read it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I'm excited to see where Lindsay Ellis takes the story in future novels.
1 review
August 4, 2020
A Reddit comment I made predicting Axiom's End would be bad was referenced in Lindsay Ellis's Titanic video, and so, thinking it would be dishonest to not see if I was correct, I decided to read the first part of Axiom's End & review it. Unfortunately, the section up until Chapter 9 is so mediocre that it does not give me any confidence in the rest, but criticism is criticism, and I will attempt to deal fairly *only* with what I have read.

Preceding the book is a classified letter that establishes the existence of aliens, and that a shadowy organization is attempting to extract information from them: a simple plot hook, nothing bad nor good, merely solid. As we proceed to the novel proper, we are given our first look at the main character, Cora:

"On the morning of the second meteor, Cora’s 1989 Toyota Camry gave up the ghost for good. The car was a manual transmission with a stick shift its previous owner had wrapped in duct tape years ago, a time bomb the color of expired baby food that should have gone off sooner than it did. At $800, she had paid more for it than it was worth, but back then, she had been a freshman in college and desperate for a car. In the two years since, she’d grown accustomed to the ever-loudening squealing of the fan belt, but on this morning, after she put her key in the ignition and the engine turned, the squealing turned into a hostile screech. A disheartening thunk thunk thunk followed, then a snap, then an angry whirr, all before she could react. But by the time she turned off the ignition, it was clear that the car, her first and only car, was dead forever."

Now, while this type of nonchalant opening can work if the prose is good, there is nothing here about Cora that gives deeper insight in to her character: all we are given is externals. The first line is a cliche, and this begins issues frequently recurrent in Ellis's prose: needless description & melodrama.

For example, does it matter that Cora drives a 1989 Toyota Camry, or if I spied a different color than "expired baby food" in my mind's eye? It really does not, and while I may seem to be harping on only a few sentences, the truth is that much of the book continues this pattern of describing things that are not necessary to the tale. This not only lards the book, but actually pushes the reader further out of engaging with the work, as they are not forced to co-imbue their own imaginations of settings & objects in to the story.

Nor is the prose of Axiom's End good enough to justify these excesses: it's mediocre and indulges cliches as quickly as its first line. Following this, we are eventually given more of Cora. Here is what passes for depth in her:

"A good concert was the one place she could genuinely lose herself, have an out-of-body experience and detach from the deteriorating morass that was her life."

Note the cliche: "genuinely lose herself." Her mother dislikes her, and her father abandoned her. Neither relationship rises above plot necessity, and they are not explored with any depth: they are merely ornaments strung on to the marionette of a character who follows what plot dictates to her, and no better does the genericness of these relationships show in this horrifically-written letter by her father at the end of Chapter 3:

"I write this with the hope that we might reestablish communication, perhaps even begin to rebuild a relationship. You were only sixteen the last time we spoke, and I recognize now that I should have met you where you were, not where I wanted you to be.

I hope you respond to me someday. I don’t expect you to agree with what I’ve done. I know I’ve hurt you all. I don’t ask for your forgiveness, not yet, but just understand why I do what I do.

I want a future for us, but I want it on your terms. Perhaps one day, if I earn your forgiveness, I may even earn your acceptance. I don’t want you to simply endure what I do. I want you to understand it, because I think if you understand me, eventually, you might join me."

Does any line here separate this character from the thousands, if not millions of stereotypical deadbeat dads that populate fiction? Any writer could have penned this, let alone someone experienced in film criticism who should have recognized that every single line of this letter is a naked cliche. Little is explored, or even made unique, of *any* character in the book's first 8 chapters: their politics / fears / fantasies / wants & needs never arise above their shallow personalities.

And while one may excuse that genre works, in general, are not devoted to characterization, Axiom's End does try to characterize: it's simply done badly! See the intro to chapter 4:

"She’d been trying to clear her mind and get to sleep but always came back to Nils’s letter, how it ripped open wounds she’d deluded herself into thinking had healed years ago. She didn’t know why she had kept it for the last two months; it was too uncomfortable to merit introspection. She wondered what he wanted, what he really, honestly expected her to do."

While this could be the start of something interesting, the phrasing is teeth-grinding. There is no excuse for such a shallow main character: in any genre. A good writer or editor should have, at the very least, forced this to be phrased less tritely.

Now, on to the book's plot; there is a reason I have not talked about it yet, primarily that it's, well, not very interesting. This is how Chapters 4 & 5 & 6 proceed: in-book, this is told over about 7,000 words.

Cora awakens in her home to the snippet above. Some*thing* breaks in to her home, and knocks her unconscious with a high-frequency sound. After awakening, she goes outside to search for this alien, and MIB agents show up at her mother's house. (Of course, they have memory-erasing devices.) Panicked, Cora flees to the marsh and is paralyzed by the alien after covering herself in mud: but after recovering, calls her friend Luciana, who arranges for her friend Bard to pick up Cora.

I hope it's clear why I have barely mentioned the plot: it's generic. My re-telling of it is about as interesting as it goes, and it has no real depth, let alone when it is spread over 7,000 words, in paragraphs larded by trite descriptions & predictable situations. Count the banalities in the scene where the alien paralyzes Cora:

"She tried to scream, but it was as though the air in her lungs had frozen solid, the muscles around her throat refusing to come together in the manner required of screaming. The more she tried to thrash, the greater the force that held her in place, as if her body were turned to plaster. She tried to cry out, but nothing came. She convulsed as though electricity were flowing through her, turning her nerves into jelly. She felt a deep pressure on her neck as though something were trying to burrow in between her vertebrae. Her brain demanded that her voice produce some noise, any noise, but her body wouldn’t obey."

Give or take a few, I counted 8-9. Additionally, when the plot is so shallow, good characterization can make up for it (or indeed, may even be the *primary* focus!), but with so thin a character as Cora, why should any reader care about her plight?

Worse yet is the humor:

'Bard sucked on the inside of his lips, considering. "How do you know it wasn’t a white person? Like a white human person?"
"I don’t mean white as in race; I mean white as in the color white."
"White’s not a color."'

Or, when melodrama is deployed as a joke, yet sits along melodrama played seriously:

"Cora thundered, her words reverberating through the trees, through the atmosphere, through the entire galaxy, through space, through time and into eternity."

"She knew she was capable of better self-control than this, but she’d been on the edge for a long time, she hadn’t even realized she’d flown off it and was now plummeting into the void, and there was no one to catch her."

And, while I understood most of the references Ellis makes, peppered throughout the book are references to things such as The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Neko Case, McMansions, and Panic! At The Disco. Even in passing, these fail for several reasons.

1 is that they exist solely ping the reader's mind if they understand if, and confuse them if they don't, to sometimes bizarrely superfluous effect. One paragraph is devoted to how McMansions are taking over the Bay Area: except, the term "McMansion" is not defined, and the few readers who do know that slang term will already likely know that these eyesores are taking over the Bay Area.

2nd is that if a reference is to have a purpose in-story, it should either be something that is not rendered irrelevant 10-20 years in the future (such as referencing a Rembrandt, or a Woody Allen), or be deployed in such a way that an ignorant reader only needs to understand the *category* of what is being referenced. For example, there is no issue with a sentence like "Jimmy sipped his Coke while his wife talked about Stardust Memories," because, readers in 2050 will most likely understand what a Coke is, and that Stardust Memories is some work of art.

But what is an issue is when a character is introduced by the third-person narrator as: "Eli was a scene kid, the type that was just a little too into Panic! at the Disco to be trusted."

"Scene" as a slang term is already on the decline, but if I do not know P!ATD, this sentence says nothing about this new character to me. This has aged poorly *currently*, let alone if someone were to come across in 2030. Worse yet is when these references replace description, such as the alien's voice being described as "the voice from a standard Macintosh."

I've laid out about all the issues with Part 1, and what I suspect continues in to part 2/3/4; perhaps I'll be surprised. If you read the sample of the book, you'll notice that the critiques I've laid out are not mere one-offs: they are consistent issues. What sticks most in my mind about this book is Nils' poorly-written letter, where he "wants a future for us", and I am hoping that writing of this quality is not in it.
Profile Image for Mats.
78 reviews11 followers
July 31, 2020
I should begin by mentioning that I was not predisposed to charity when reading this book, so please consider the following criticism with that in mind. The reason for this was that I learned that the author is a youtuber. I was not familiar with her work on that platform, but some quick research verified my original misgivings. Youtubers, in my opinion, are emblematic of a certain strain of decay in modern internet culture, where people are content to give their money to personalities for middling―often inoffensive―analysis of culture products they might have easily managed to unpack themselves had they only invested some small intellectual effort. For this service, youtubers, often through the website patreon dot com, are occasionally paid far more than teachers, nurses, or physical labourers. This, then, I charge, is both a symptom of late-stage capitalism, which grossly under-values certain professions, as well as being an aberration in fan culture, which is inherently parasocial and vastly over-values mediocre academic work as long as it is personality-driven and presented in an easily digested video.

My soapbox spent and discreetly put away, I did not like the book.

The first reason for this became apparent rather quickly. The prose, in an attempt at naturalism, is ludicrously informal. Sounds are spelled out (engine goes woosh) and sentences often mimic the worst parts of the american vernacular. There are so many instances of repeated phrasing over a few pages, I wonder if there was a robust editorial process here at all. (St. Martin and Titan Press both release a lot of mediocre fiction, so perhaps the issue lies with them.) Occasionally, the internal mental processes of the characters seep into the prose itself―albeit not in an interesting or good way―, resulting in sentences such as «And if it meant getting bitched at by her mother and an indefinite period with no car, then oh well.» This is lazy and poor writing, but also characteristic of the problems inherent in media that is primarily character driven. In service to the character, the first ballast that is jettisoned is the prose, which must first shed all traces of lyrical sensibilities, and the tone needs be placed as close to the mouthpiece as possible, which often sounds like the sentence just quoted―trite, dull and soul-suckingly average―, or it becomes quippy and laden with an ironic detachment.

Characters read as though they were made to inhabit certain character traits rather than having naturally evolved into these traits through the writing process (see Eli for the text’s first example of this, but not the last). I am reminded here of Mikhail Bakhtin and his thesis on Dostoyevky’s dialogic novel and the steering hand of the author: «Dostoevsky, like Goethe’s Prometheus, creates not voiceless slaves (as does Zeus), but free people, capable of standing alongside their creator, capable of not agreeing with him and even of rebelling against him.» Ellis, undoubtedly, is a Zeus.

The second ballast to be jettisoned, is a finer thematic sensibility. There is an attempt here, for which Ellis deserves some measure of credit, to tie the narrative into some overarching themes about truth, authoritarianism and linguistics, but it becomes lost in the wash of confused prose, bland, flimsy characters and a political thrust that is probably well-intentioned but ultimately impotent.

If you read this specifically looking for SF about linguistics (like I did), consider instead reading China Miéville’s Embassytown. This book, I can only presume, was released because the publisher realised the author came with a pre-established audience.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,049 reviews100 followers
March 4, 2021
This is a first contact novel with hugs. It is a debut work of active Youtuber (you can find her channel here. She has an active fan base, which I guess was the reason that her novel finished sixth among SF novels and 17th among debut novel of any genre. For example, my favorite of the 2020 SF The Doors of Eden wasn’t even among nominees. I read is as a part of monthly reading for March 2021 at SFF Hot from Printers: New Releases group.

This is year 2007, Bush is the POTUS, the global financial crisis has already started and there are several meteorite (?) hits over the US. The protagonist Cora Sabino is a 22 years old college dropout living with her mother and two younger siblings. Her father is notoriously famous for publishing information that shows that the US government has a Contact with aliens, but was unable to set a communication. Now he is a runaway from CIA and a deep shame for his daughter. The day started badly – her old car finally died, o her way to work she was followed by a black towncar (screaming CIA with its exterior and passengers); a meteorite fell nearby… and the day continued to get worse while she finally met an alien.

The story actually reminds less of modern day SF and more stuff from the 60s and 70s. the prose is quite weak and uneven, the ideas aren’t too novel, but overall it is a nice easy read, quite good for a debut.
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