Nathan’s Review of The Archive Undying
Publication Date: 27 June 2023
Series: Book #1 in the Downworld Sequence
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 496 pages
War machines and AI gods run amok in The Archive Undying, national bestseller Emma Mieko Candon’s bold entry into the world of mecha fiction.
WHEN AN AI DIES, ITS CITY DIES WITH IT
WHEN A CITY FALLS, IT LEAVES A CORPSE BEHIND
WHEN THAT CORPSE RUNS OFF, ONLY DEVOTION CAN BRING IT BACK
When the robotic god of Khuon Mo went mad, it destroyed everything it touched. It killed its priests, its city, and all its wondrous works. But in its final death throes, the god brought one thing back to its favorite child, Sunai. For the seventeen years since, Sunai has walked the land like a ghost, unable to die, unable to age, and unable to forget the horrors he’s seen. He’s run as far as he can from the wreckage of his faith, drowning himself in drink, drugs, and men. But when Sunai wakes up in the bed of the one man he never should have slept with, he finds himself on a path straight back into the world of gods and machines.
The Archive Undying is the first volume of Emma Mieko Candon’s Downworld Sequence, a sci-fi series where AI deities and brutal police states clash, wielding giant robots steered by pilot-priests with corrupted bodies.
Review for The Archive Undying
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
Creative, queer, and undeniably weird, The Archive Undying is a uniquely refreshing science fiction novel with murderous, god-like AIs who destroy entire cities upon their deaths, messy and fascinating characters, Gundam-style robots, and queer representation that isn’t afraid to get into the weeds. This book won’t be for everyone – it is confusing, often opaque, deliberately misleading, a mix of POV styles and tenses, and written with prose verging on the purple. However, it is also insanely rewarding for those willing to wade through its waters and ultimately becomes like nothing else I have ever read.
Many of the early reviews for The Archive Undying have focused on how confusing it is, and for good reason. Candon throws you right into the action with very little guidance of what is happening. Characters talk to each other as if everyone in the room knows what all of the made up words, concepts, and worldbuilding elements refer to (because they do), but this does often leave the reader feeling like they’ve missed something. Toss in unexplained POV shifts and other aspects that drive into the gloriously and purely weird, and you have a confusing book on your hands. In a ranking of complicated SFF books, I would place The Archive Undying closer to Gideon the Ninth than, say, Malazan. The Archive Undying is not confusing because there is so much going on, but rather because the ideas, prose, and storytelling style are wonderfully weird and creative. Undying plays it a bit more straight here than Gideon (and significantly less internet humor), but they are on similar wavelengths.
Having said that, I should also note that this book is far less confusing than some reviewers make it out to be. And this is coming from a reader who is usually the first to admit that he has struggled to follow a book. If the first act intrigues you but you are really struggling, just push through. All you have to know is that the main character, Sunai, is the last remaining follower of the AI god Iterate Fractal, who destroyed Sunai’s entire city upon their death. Sunai then signed up to work for a salvage job without knowing what the job actually entails, and he also forgot even signing up for it because he is self-destructive and went into an alcohol/drug induced stupor. Later, the totalitarian government finally found a way to revive Iterate Fractal’s power into a Gundam-style robot they can use as part of their armed forces, which Sunai is recruited to stop.
While there is so much more amazing stuff going on in The Archive Undying, that is the short of it. Throw on some AI gods and mecha armies and you’ve got a novel.
A lot of the marketing for this book focuses on the AI and mecha aspects, and to be sure they are cool, but the true wonder of this book is the main character himself, Sunai. The way that Candon balanced his character was masterful and demonstrated such complexity and nuance. On one hand Sunai is a self-destructive idiot. He takes on huge projects without even knowing what they are about, he launches himself into the unknown, and he makes some of the worst decisions this side of Fitzchivalry Farseer. On the onther hand, Sunai is witty, intelligent, and caring. While he often fails at them, he strives for meaningful and deep human relationships; he’s loyal and astute; he understands the world around him deeply, even as so much of it still eludes and befuddles him. I loved Sunai; I loathed Sunai. He felt real because human beings aren’t supposed to be rational, we aren’t supposed to make good decisions all of the time. We have imperfect knowledge of the world around us, we have conflicting needs, and sometimes we intentionally do things that we know are bad because they satisfy us in the moment. Sunai exemplifies this and so much more. He is aggravating and relatable, kind and disagreeable.
Sunai brings his messiness into his relationships, particularly with Veyadi, a researcher who is looking into some of the dead AI gods. Despite what some of the official marketing materials might suggest, the queer/romance aspect of the book is relatively minor. It informs a lot of Sunai’s actions without overwhelming the plot. Sunai and Veyadi’s relationship is real and raw; it isn’t sanitized and made perfect just because it’s queer. Candon respects her characters and their relationship enough to let it be both beautiful and toxic. Their relationship is wonderfully nuanced and does create a sort of emotional anchor point for the book. As the plot moves into AI voices taking over people’s brains, scary governments, and more, some of the more “human” elements give the reader something to latch onto.
Therefore, if you mainly read books for the plot you may walk away from The Archive Undying a bit disappointed. All of the aspects that the blurb highlights – the mechs, the AI gods, etc. – are present but surprisingly limited in their impact. The blurb and marketing for the book really push the “rule of cool” stuff, but it is the more human and grounded moments of Sunai discovering himself and his place in this weird new world that really makes the book shine.
Make sure you pick up The Archive Undying when you are in the right mood for it. My reaction to it was nearly the opposite of my review for The Foxglove King; as many of us move into the summer months you might not be in the mood for a book that is puzzling and daunting. This book takes effort, and I think a big part of why I am placing this book more in the 4ish star range than the 5 star one is because I was pretty exhausted by the 3/4 mark that the ending didn’t land for me in the way that perhaps Candon had anticipated. If you like piecing things together and being challenged by the books that you read, take this one slow and you’ll be rewarded for it. But if you’re in the mood for something a bit breezier, buy this one now and pick it up later when you’re ready for it.
The Archive Undying is only the first in a new series, and I cannot wait for what new AI/mech/queer stuff Candon is going to throw at us next.
Concluding Thoughts: A difficult yet not impenetrable read, The Archive Undying is not for readers looking for something plot-based or breezy. Instead, Candon introduces us to a wonderfully complex, broken, intelligent, and stupid main character, Sunai, who comes alive on the page. Sunai’s plight and relationships form an emotional core to the novel that keeps things engaging even when the plot and worldbuilding start to feel a bit exhausting. Come more for the great character work and less for the AI and mechs (which, while present, don’t dominate the novel in the way you would expect). Highly recommended for a particular kind of reader.