I want to start by listing a few critiques of Nyxia, any one of which I can understand would make you like the book less. Then I’ll explain why, despite these issues, I still loved this book so much.
Warning: there is a spoiler in the very last paragraph of this review regarding the death of a character. The rest of the review is spoiler-free.
First, this is absolutely a “set up” novel. The entirety of the story takes place on the journey to Eden and then in orbit of the planet. The next book will presumably feature those who survived on Eden itself, attempting to mine Nyxia and no doubt discovering that the story fed to them by Babel about the Adamites is far more complicated. That being said, I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone who embarks on the book. I don’t feel like Reintgen pulled a fast one on me or anything.
Second, the formulaic “pitting kids against each other in a fight to the metaphorical death” might feel a little derivative or clichéd. I’d argue that Reintgen does it differently enough, and well enough, to get a pass (more on that in a bit). But at the end of the day, Nyxia is a story about teens competing at the behest of the evil monolithic corporation. So make of that what you will.
Third, although I’d argue that most of the characters end up with these interesting, diverse personality traits, it’s true that most of them don’t show much development. And Reintgen introduces an entire, parallel cast of characters in the last act (what a twist!) who, as a result, suffer a lack of page-time to grow into real people for us. So while it’s a pleasure to get to know Emmett and some of the others better, few them actually change much, and that’s a little frustrating.
Finally, I am so incensed about the big death in this. Like, shaking with rage. I know that this is probably the desired reaction, and I totally understand the significance of killing off this character. But … it just makes me sad that once again, romance gets prioritized over friendship. And I’m sure that’s not what Reintgen is trying to say here, but it’s an unavoidable consequence of the choice he made. Booo.
OK, having levelled these critiques, let’s go over why this book is such a wild ride.
Mainly, it’s Emmett. As our protagonist and narrator, he is the heart of this story. I love how we get to watch him struggle and develop his own moral backbone. He is such a real, flawed character. He’s not a natural leader, but he tries to step up when it’s necessary. He’s not the smartest, fastest, or best at anything. He has particular talents, and tries to develop them—he does want to win. But when Babel presents him with certain choices to attempt to shape him into their tool, he has to think good and hard about whether he wants to let that happen. There is such a strong core of morality here, and a clear message not just about choosing your path but thinking carefully about your chosen path.
Even though most of the other characters don’t seem to grow that much, Emmett grows by leaps and bounds. At the beginning of this book, he’s just in this to win and get the money. He wants to support his family and earn freedom. He’s suspicious of Babel but only in the way he’s suspicious of any big organization. As Nyxia unfolds and Babel puts Emmett and the others through the wringer, we see him mature. He starts to understand the stakes. And his suspicions of Babel turn into hard proof, into a more concrete form of distrust. He hardens—not in a bad way, not in a “loss of innocence” way, because I don’t think he ever had that illusion. Just in the way that kids turn into adults as they assume responsibility for their actions.
I particularly like how Emmett revises his opinions of certain characters, like Jaime, as he gets to know them. Similarly, these characters revise their opinions of him. The whole crew isn’t exactly buddy-buddy by the end—there’s still competition, and of course certain people are outright hostile towards Emmett and some of the others. But Reintgen has this excellent way of showing, rather than telling, the strange bonds developing among these teenagers. It’s great storytelling, and it just got me in the feels. Bilal and the cards.
And then they launch for Eden and … yeah. Man, this book is rough. Just when you think you’ve entered a light moment, boom, there goes another punch to the gut as Reintgen reminds you that this is not a game. The last few chapters of this book are so brutal and honest and … I just had to stay up late one night reading it until the end.
Honestly, I couldn’t care less about the eponymous novum, what it can do, or why Babel wants it. It’s a MacGuffin for the sake of the story. I appreciate that Reintgen tries to establish some rules for it, and I like how he foreshadows that there is a whole lot more going on with nyxia than we can possibly know at this point. Despite its use in the title, though, this is not and probably never will be the main focus of the story for me. I’m in this to see Emmett grow and change and make tough decisions.
Nyxia is hands-down one of the most exciting science-fiction stories, young adult or otherwise, I’ve read in a while. I’m thrilled it’s YA, because this is exactly the kind of thing that would have hooked me as a teen (as it has hooked me now, as a late twenty-something).
RIP, Kaya. You were literally the best, my favourite, and you were sacrificed on the altar of plot before we ever really got to know you. Your friendship with Emmett was my everything, and I will carry that platonic torch in my heart as I go into book 2.