This book had me so confused. Not because of its contents (they were awesome – expect some gushing below) but because of its marketing or rather the way early reviews presented it. For some reason, I thought this was a YA book but… it’s really not. The protagonist is in her mid-twenties, there is nothing particularly “YA” about the writing style or the plot, so I don’t know where early reviewers and people on Goodreads got this idea from. It is, however, a really great book that kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time.
THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS
by Micaiah Johnson
Published: DelRey, 2020
eBook: 336 pages
My rating: 8/10
Opening line: When the multiverse was confirmed, the spiritual and scientific communities both counted it as evidence of their validity.
An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.
Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying–from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total.
On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works–and shamelessly flirts–with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security.
But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined – and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.
Caramenta works for Eldridge, the company that has invented multiverse travel. As a traverser, she is tasked with hopping between Earths that are similar to, but not quite like, our own in order to take samples and conduct research on behalf of her employer. Cara is so valuable because you can only safely travel to worlds where your other self is already dead – and Cara happens to be really good at dying…
The premise alone was already so interesting that very little could have gone wrong with this book. But Micaiah Johnson didn’t just rely on one good idea. Instead, she took that idea, extrapolated from it and delivered twist after twist, all fitting perfectly together in this world she’s built and keeping me riveted for the entire book. I mean, how often does it happen that you get a plot twist in chapter 2 (!) that actually shocks you? For me, this showed two things. First, that Johnson did a really good job setting up the world and protagonist in the first chapter. And secondly, that she somehow got me emotionally invested in that same amount of time. And that’s no small feat.
Caramenta is pretty easy to like, even though she is complicated, stubborn, and carries a lot of baggage. She keeps flirting with her watcher, Dell, even though she only returns the flirtations with cold professionalism. Cara is also great at getting herself into dangerous situations, ones she mostly makes the best of. The best being her pursuit of a Wiley City citizenship. As a traverser, she gets to live in Wiley City but she never, for one second, forgets her origins in the Mad Max-like wastelands. Walled cities have all the wealth and quality of life, whereas the outside is mostly desert under a scorching sun, with terrible living conditions, and ground that barely wants to grow anything. It’s ruled by the Blood Emperor and that title alone should tell you all there is to know about him.
This book may be about multiverses, and we do get to see some of those, but it’s also about living between two worlds on your own Earth, of straddling two identities and not feeling like you properly fit into either. As much as I enjoyed Cara’s jumps between worlds, it was this aspect of the novel that truly gripped me. And I was very impressed with how the author managed to show both those worlds as believable spaces, with their own culture, their own clothing and mannerisms, their own rituals and rules. Discovering both how Wiley City and the wastelands work was a large part of the fun for me.
But there’s also plot. Oh, and what a plot it is! You’d think the trope of the multiverse would prepare you a little for what’s to come. And again, some things that are expected turn out to happen in this novel – such as meeting other versions of people you know, except they’re very different or meeting their other versions and they’re almost exactly the same – but there is so much more! Things in one universe actually impact other universes, if only because Cara travels between them and can take information (and objects) with her. Let’s just say there are quite a few twists, none of which felt cheap, and I was there for it!
What made this book even better was the relationships between the characters and the way they were written. This may sound mean (I don’t mean it that way) but that’s another thing that convinced me this was not a YA novel. In YA, sometimes relationships can be described in very obvious terms. And while it’s obvious from the start that Cara is in love with Dell, that’s all we really know. We’re in Cara’s head so we don’t really know what goes on in anyone else’s. But as aloof as Dell may be, through little (and sometimes big) gestures, she shows that she at least cares whether Cara lives or dies.
Similarly, Cara’s relationship to her stepsister Esther was beautifully done. As different as these two girls may be, there is love between them and it is shown not by either of them declaring it in big words, but rather through actions. It may just be me, but I’m a sucker for love shown, rather than told. Sure, pretty words are nice and I get weak in the knees as much as the next person when I read a powerful declaration of love. But even more than that, a collection of little gestures is what gets to me. A small lie to protect the other person here, a gift there, something that shows you listen and care about someone… aaaaah, I’m getting all mushy inside.
This book is exactly what the title promises. It’s about the space between worlds. A multitude of worlds. The literal parallel worlds that exist next to ours, the two worlds on Earth Zero with their class differences, even the worlds inside Cara herself where she has to decide whether she wants to be a good person or just someone who carved out a comfortable life for herself, regardless of the cost. And let’s not forget the space between Cara’s two romantic relationships which couldn’t be more different. In short, there is so much to discover in this book and the way Johnson explores these themes is amazing.
I loved everything about this book, especially considering that it’s a debut novel. Johnson writes like she has at least five books under her belt. If this is what she comes up with for her first book I cannot wait to see what’s next. The Space Between Worlds was a fantastic, multi-layered story with high stakes, great science-fictional ideas, brilliant characters, and a satisfying ending. It will easily end up on my list of favorite books of the year.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!