Debut novels are always a guess if you’re in for something special or won’t even want to finish flipping through the pages. Thankfully, Michael R. Johnston’s first outing with a fully fleshed out story has far more hits than misses. Johnston proves that he has a deft hand at world building and is giving us a new take on Earth’s future. Only, in the seeds of a far-flung change to humanity’s direction and culture, we are given the seeds of a revival of what can make the human spirit so great.
The book starts well into our future but 800 years before the events which we’ll be reading about when the story begins. A broken colonization ship from Earth is found by the Zhen Empire in the far reaches of their space. The Zhen are willing to save them and welcome this portion of humanity into their empire. Only, entrance comes at a cost as to have humans adapt to this new life our centuries of culture have to be abandoned and our own history has faded to legend.
Flash forward to the present where Tajen Hunt is not only one of the few humans allowed to serve in the Zhen military but a war hero as well. Things are going great until he fails at a mission which costs the lives of millions. Disgraced, he resigns and becomes an independent pilot. Soon he is wrapped up into his brother’s quest of trying to discover the mysterious Earth where humanity once came from and in doing so could ignite a new war within the Empire and extinguish the spark of humanity forever.
Johnston can bring up not only solid worldbuilding as mentioned above but investigate a full spectrum of themes from belonging to friendship to personal identity and more.
The overall Space Opera themes resonate with the reader, and for the most part, this is a thrilling ride full of mystery and mayhem. That being said, there were a few shortcomings.
First and foremost while I was enthralled with the Zhen Empire, I wouldn’t say that they were developed enough for me. Yes, it is an Empire spanning centuries and multiple races, but I felt they weren’t fleshed out quite enough yet. They are a threat to humanity, but we’re given enough for it to not nearly fall into the realm of cosmic horror but not enough to feel invested to be against them.
If a sequel does happen, I’m hoping we get more backstory from the author and a few more central villains to root against because I want to find out more about this world.
For fans of Space Opera who are looking for a new world to dive into, I can for sure suggest this one as a strong protagonist-centric story. However, if you need a completely developed enemy to really root for, you might want to wait for the follow-up. This is an enjoyable read and I’m eager to see more of what Johnston can create.
The Widening Gyre
By: Michael R. Johnston
Flame Tree Press
March 14th, 2019