Review: Symbiosis – Nicky Drayden

Review: Symbiosis – Nicky DraydenSymbiosis
by Nicky Drayden
Series: Escaping Exodus #2
Also in this series: Escaping Exodus
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: February 23, 2021
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 368
Source: NetGalley

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

My rating: One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

The Compton Crook Award-winning author weaves her trademark blend of science fiction and dark humor in this dazzling story that continues the imaginative saga begun in Escaping Exodus, in which a society lives in the belly of a beast—and an entire civilization's survival depends on a pair of uneasy allies who must come together for one epic battle.

Nearly a thousand years removed from Earth, the remnants of humanity cling to existence inside giant, space faring creatures known as the Zenzee. Abused and exploited by humans for generations, these majestic animals nearly went extinct, but under the command of its newly minted ruler, Doka Kaleigh, life in the Parados I has flourished. Thanks to careful oversight and sacrifice by all of its crew, they are now on the brink of utopia, and yet Doka’s rivals feel threatened by that success.  The Senate allowed Doka to lead their people believing he’d fail spectacularly—a disaster that would cement the legitimacy of their long-standing matriarchy. Despite vocal opposition and blatant attacks on his authority, Doka has continued to handle his position with grace and intelligence; he knows a single misstep means disaster. When a cataclysmic event on another Zenzee world forces Doka and his people to accept thousands of refugees, a culture clash erupts, revealing secrets from the past that could endanger their future. For Doka, the stakes are bigger and more personal than ever before—and could cost him his reign and his heart. 

He has fallen for the one woman he is forbidden to love: his wife, Seske. 

Doka and Seske must work closely together to sway the other Zenzee worlds to stop their cycles of destruction. But when they stumble upon a discovery that can transform their world, they know they must prepare to fight a battle where there can be no winners, only survivors. 

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Hello, another gorgeous cover! This is the second in the Escaping Exodus series and absolutely cannot be read without reading the first. Trust me, the book is confusing enough without it!

The book picks up three years later with Doka and the rest of his people having made great strides in approaching a less harmful – a less parasitical – living situation with their Zenzee. It also means that a lot of sacrifices have had to be made, including leaving a chunk of the population still in stasis, not to mention numerous quality of life changes. Adalla and Seske remain part of the family unit, with Doka having taken two additional members, including Kallum, a trans man and childhood friend, in another break from tradition. A male Matris and all the changes are hard enough for their people to swallow, and all isn’t well on the other Zenzees, either, especially when it becomes clear that the Klang’s Zenzee is dying, spurring calls to allow a new hunt. Beset on all sides, Seske and Doka must decide who to trust, as the wrong choice will cost them – and their Zenzee – their lives.

“I admire his unrestrained passion for creating change. I vaguely remember what such optimism felt like.”

While this definitely took care of one of my main criticisms of the first book (how easily everyone seemingly accepted Doka as Matris and his reforms), I also found the ending of this book… interesting. The whole book, honestly, is a bit sad to me, though, I think, ultimately hopeful. The relationships between our main characters are cracking, there are enemies at every turn, and it’s becoming clear to them that there are even more dark secrets that underpin their society. As one of the premier heart workers, Adalla is constantly working, while Seske feels hollowed out, removed from the fiery woman who fought for her love and defied tradition. There’s something still between Doka and Seske, though a liaison between them is forbidden due to the structure of their family unit. And while Doka loves Kallum, Kallum has aspirations to become the first male senator, aspirations which are put on hold to keep from further eroding Doka’s tenuous control of the senate.

“Trust is such a fragile thing. It’s grown and sown, not commanded and demanded.”

The story is told from Doka and Seske’s alternating points of view, and while I found Seske much more bearable than in the last book, I still strongly preferred Doka. There’s several new characters introduced, including Bakti, son of one of the Klang leaders, and Cherelle, Doka’s wife, but my absolute favorite was Baradonna, Doka’s knife-happy accountancy guard. The Zenzee and all its bits are pieces are truly amazing worldbuilding, even with all the extended references to bile ducts and anuses (there’s three, as far as I can tell). It’s immersive and original, though at times a victim of its own success, as some of the more complicated societal structures and their taboos (or breaking of them, given we’re talking about Seske here) remained incomprehensible to me. Why is it such a big deal that the three triads that form a family not interact sexually? There’s no explanation given, but then again, I suppose it would be hard explaining some of my own culture’s taboos. The Klang civilization and all its contrasts to Doka and Seske’s daily lives was fascinating as well.

“Even the most heroic among us are still parasites—mouths always open, minds never so.”

In terms of cons, the pacing felt a bit jumpy, and there are a few time skips of several months that left me trying to figure out exactly what happened between one chapter and the next. And this was a bit of a big deal, because I desperately needed to know what was going on. The plot was compelling (the throttle fish plot alone was truly terrifying nightmare material, and let’s not even talk about the tentacles) and fascinating. The book is divided into four sections: “Parasitism,” “Commensalism,” “Mutualism,” and “Surviving Symbiosis.” In case you (like me) have forgotten high school biology, the basic Google definitions are that parasitism is where one organism lives off another, causing it harm; commensalism is when one organism benefits while the other is neither harmed nor helped; mutualism is a mutually beneficial relationship for both; and symbiosis refers to the relationship between two organisms. On the surface, these states refer to the society and their relationship with their Zenzee, but as the book progresses, it’s clear it refers also to them and the Klang, and even the relationship between Doka and Seske.

Overall, another 3.5 stars. I’d recommend this series to anyone looking for unusual and complex worldbuilding, especially with an environmentalist focus.


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