When I first picked up Riftmaster, I was a little sceptical. Usually a fan of high-fantasy epic novels with dragons, castles, and magic, I have always been cautious of sci-fi; worried it might not offer the whimsy I get from my favourite works of fiction. In the case of Riftmaster, by Miles Nelson, a trans writer and author-in-residence at Durham’s queer indie bookshop Bookwyrm, my concerns were quickly quashed by the end of the first chapter.
A wholly immersive story, I found myself unable to put it down, constantly hungry to find out what happens next. The novel follows college student Bailey, who is ripped from our world by the mysterious and unpredictable force known as the Rift. From here, he finds himself being taken to distant planets at random, with no way home and no way to know when or where the Rift will take him next. Along the way, he meets the Riftmaster, another person from our world who has been rifting for thousands of years. Together Bailey and the Riftmaster must find a way to not only survive but to reckon with all that they have lost.
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One of the main strengths of Riftmaster is Nelson’s deft talent for world-building, in such a way that you really understand the landscape of each planet from the perspective of Bailey and the Riftmaster. Specifically, each new territory is unique and offers its own challenges which the protagonists must face to survive.
Indeed, when I first read the blurb, my concern was that with such constant change, it would be difficult to properly lose myself in the novel itself. That the minute that I – and the protagonists – had finally settled into one world, we would be ripped away to another without the chance to become immersed in the wider story. At no point, however, did I feel myself leaving the overarching plot within the book. Yes, I found myself feeling lost and bewildered, but in a way that made me feel as if I was there with Bailey and the Riftmaster; a wayward traveller with no way home.
Part of what really holds the entire world of the book together, while still maintaining the constant movement of rifting, and the uncertainty that comes with unexpectedly moving planets, is the relationship between Bailey and Riftmaster. I found the character of the Riftmaster particularly fascinating; I just always wanted to know more about this mysterious figure. What are their motivations? What did they leave behind on Earth? What do they have to hide? Their story was, by far, one of the most captivating elements of the book, and their growth from a closed-off, aloof, and emotionally detached stranger, to a parental figure with a deeply emotional history felt profound.
I didn’t, on the other hand, feel like Bailey was given as much development as I would have wished. While we understand his longing to go home, and his curiosity about the Riftmaster, I never really felt the anguish he was facing. He appeared to be much the same character at the end as he was at the beginning. His motivations – to go home and to see his family – remain the same from beginning to end, and his values also remain largely unquestioned and unchanged. I found he lack of character growth disappointing in a book that was otherwise so immersive and so focussed on the importance of friendship and the impact of loss.
For the Riftmaster, it made sense why the story never truly dwelled on their grief: they were running away, never allowing themselves a moment to reckon with all they had lost. However, for Bailey, grief was his main motivation – yet as a reader, I didn’t quite feel his burning desire to go home. While I longed for more from Bailey, overall, I found that Riftmaster exceeded all expectations, especially for a book I would normally describe as out of my comfort zone.
Nelson skillfully builds a story world with an ever-changing landscape, ensuring the reader never feels lost or detached from the characters or their struggles. This is a read I have found myself recommending again and again, even to those who would normally would avoid sci-fi like their life depended on it, saying; “I know it’s sci-fi, but you just have to give it a chance.”
If you’re looking for a story which takes you far away, but hits close to home, then Riftmaster is the book for you.
Niamh is an ambassador for Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people’s charity. If you’re LGBT+ and 18 to 25, you can volunteer as a Just Like Us ambassador – sign up here.