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Review of The House of Saints by

The House of Saints

by Derek Künsken

Nearly four years ago (wow), I gushed over The House of Styx, a Venusian planetary romance that swept me off my feet and into the clouds of Earth’s harsh neighbour. If you haven’t read my (spoiler-free) review of that book, go do it now so I don’t have to retread all the praise I gave it—all of which applies to The House of Saints, and then some. Derek Künsken brings this duology to a satisfying close

Spoilers for the first book but not for this one. (Also, shout-out to whoever thought to include a recap of the first book at the start of this book: more of this please, publishers!)

The D’Aquillons (those who survive, anyway) have aligned themselves with two other coureur families into a political unit called the House of Styx. Now they are in a race against time to secure and exploit the new resource they have discovered—a stable wormhole embedded into a cave on the Venusian surface, leading to another solar system rich in resources. Their behaviour attracts the attention—and animosity—of what passes for a government on Venus, not to mention the transnational bank to which the government is beholden. The politics are a powder keg, and one misstep could set everything alight—or, equally, plunge them into the depths with no hope of return.

I didn’t spend much time discussing the wormhole in my review of the first book (it is, after all, a spoiler), so let’s start there. This is such a cool novum. Like, I get that as a prequel series to Künsken’s Quantum Evolution novels, which established the primacy of wormhole technology. But it’s so unusual to see a story wherein one end of a wormhole is in space and the other end is on the surface of a planet, much less the planet Venus. It’s a perfect “what if” starting point from which Künsken extrapolates excellently. The challenges of working on the punishing surface of Venus create plenty of conflict even before we consider the politically charged situation in the upper atmosphere.

As I opined in my review of Flight From the Ages And Other Stories, Künsken’s creativity sets him apart in this generation of science-fiction authors. He has an incredible facility for harnessing dependable tropes of decades past while balancing them with fresh, wild, almost ludicrous ideas of his own imagining. The House of Saints is no exception. Do you want submarine warfare in the clouds of Venus? Do you want death-defying feats on the outer skin of a habitat? Do you want asteroid tethering, wormhole-mouth-moving, jaw-dropping feats of microgravity maneuvering? Yeah you do.

If that were all, that would be enough. I’d give this book three, maybe four stars, and move on to my next fix. But it’s not all. This book has heart. Künsken balances an action-packed plot with rich, meaty character development, and it takes my breath away.

No character embodies this ethos more than Émile. In The House of Styx, he was largely an irresponsible wastrel, written off by his father and largely unlikable. The House of Saints sees Émile evolve in such a satisfying way. He doesn’t suddenly turn into a hero; rather, he goes on a journey of redemption, an imperfect one that is far from simple or linear. It takes guts and gumption to write unlikable characters and to ask the reader to trust you enough to help them grow into rounder, more sympathetic protagonists—but the emotional payoff, in my opinion, is so worth it.

The same goes for Pascale’s story arc and her relationship with Gabriel-Antoine. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this was the part of the book I was most anticipating. Pascale in The House of Styx is an example of how a cis author with a good sensitivity reader and editor behind him can get it so, so right with a trans main character—and that continues to be the case here.

Honestly, some of Pascale’s scenes were difficult for me to read in ways I was not expecting. I was only seven months into my transition when I read The House of Styx—and this was during the height of the pandemic and lockdowns too, mind you. Everything about my transition was fresh, exciting, nerve-wracking. Just encountering such great trans rep made me feel so seen. Now I’m four years into my transition, whereas for Pascale only a few months have gone by. I was always more open and more certain than she was—at the start of The House of Saints she is only out to two people, and her coming out is a slow and somewhat painful experience, especially where Gabriel-Antoine is concerned. And it’s so fascinating to me, because as an aro/ace gal, I never had a lover whose reaction to my coming out was a concern of mine—yet so much of Pascale’s experience of coming out still feels relatable and painful to me. That fear of rejection, the impatience to see physical and emotional changes, the apprehension over how to ensure continual access to gender-affirming care, how to come out over and over to each person in your life … oof, yeah. It’s all here, my experience yet not my experience. And my feet were always firmly on solid ground in an atmosphere that wasn’t trying to eat me!

Above all, what stood out to me the most about Pascale’s journey in this book is how delicate it is. Künsken does not rush her coming out, does not rush to resolve the conflict this creates with Gabriel-Antoine or others in her life. I love the creative way he uses the limited third-person perspective to convey how she is in transition: even with the same conversation, the spelling of Pascale’s name shifts depending on whether the speaker knows she has come out. When they don’t, the book uses the male spelling, Pascal, which is pronounced the same. So we, the readers, hear the difference, but the characters who aren’t in the know don’t. With each new person who learns, each time Pascale asserts her identity, calls herself George-Étienne’s daughter, etc.—my heart swelled. There is such power in a beautiful depiction of the struggles and rewards of transition.

Beyond her transition, Pascale experiences remarkable growth as a protagonist and a heroine. She doesn’t set out to be in the spotlight, to be an agitator or an insurrectionist. Yet push does indeed come to shove, and she rises to the occasion—and then some, as the book’s epilogue indicates. We love to see it!

Honestly, if I have one criticism of The House of Saints, it’s simply that its climax comes a bit late and the denouement is a bit rushed as a result. I would have liked a bit more cooldown, a bit more time to see the fire subside into embers and then ash. The plot itself is nearly perfect, the resolution the right amount of messy and tenuous—I just wish there had been a longer, more sustained note of tension and mess and more wrapping up than we got. Still, I have to commend Künsken or his editor, whoever resolved on this being neither one book nor three but two. There is something very reassuring and satisfying about a proper duology.

Which brings me full circle: The House of Saints, like the first book in the Venus Ascendant duology, is satisfying. It’s much more than that, of course—but it is most definitely that. Unlike The House of Styx, this one didn’t surprise me as much, for I knew what to expect—and my expectations were high. So high, I was a bit worried this book couldn’t live up to them. It does. And then some. Of everyone currently writing science fiction out there, Derek Künsken is one to watch. Each of his books just seems to be better than the last.


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