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THE ENDLESS VESSEL
by Charles Soule
Harper Perennial, June 2023
496 pages
$30.00
ISBN: 0063043041


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Bestselling comic book writer and STAR WARS franchise contributor Charles Soule's THE ENDLESS VESSEL is a story that surely will be made into a breathtaking Hollywood film. Conceived on an epic scale, it begins in the Louvre, where elderly curator Dr. Francois LeDuc, the particular widely-venerated curator in charge of the Louvre's greatest treasure or at least most effective tourist trap, the Mona Lisa, witnesses, after-hours, the outbreak of a catastrophic fire. This fire is narrated in a riveting manner that will conjure vivid memories for any reader who remembers the day that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame burned. LeDuc beats the flames to the Mona Lisa's sanctuary and removes it from its nest of glass and alarms, only to do something very surprising to it, something that is a joke and a provocation.

As it turns out, LeDuc is part of an international conspiracy of people who live to mess things up in cataclysmic ways and thumb their noses at "the establishment," from which, of course, they exclude themselves. They are trying to defeat The Grey, a pandemic of depression and ennui. They come to the attention of Lily Barnes, a brilliant young woman, living in Hong Kong and long orphaned after the death of her adoring and even more brilliant father. Her friend and Scrabble companion, a Westerner teaching English in a school, warns her that "the Grey is coming for all of us and that's right. It's what humanity deserves." Lily isn't so sure. "There is a reason you are alive, and have a purpose," she believes of herself, and also of all people. It's what her father taught her. Within the "industrious smoke" of Hong Kong, she struggles to believe it.

Three hundred years earlier, someone else, a wealthy American named Molly, who attended a Federalist-era Presidential inauguration, also believed her life had purpose. She was in love with her husband, a forward-thinking post-Revolutionary colonial mover and shaker. They owned a ship: a wooden sailing ship, evocative of adventure, pirates, and science. (In this book, such ships do not also evoke slavery, nor the Triangle Trade that depended upon it.) This woman, Molly Barnes, has an impossible dream, a need for human connection not unlike the grieving Lilly's. It is her ship that slips out of time and mortality, becoming the "endless vessel" of the title. Of course, "endless vessel" is also a pun: what container is really "endless," or infinite? Grieving Lilly and Molly certainly know the answer to that riddle. As each fight her own era's version of The Grey, they come closer together--and risk losing everything.

THE ENDLESS VESSEL is a thought experiment, a speculative-fiction fantasy, and a meditation on what society needs science for and vice versa. It's intriguing, with its travels around the globe and through time and to other, unmappable realms. If and when it is adapted to film, it will look sumptuous with its clash of the metropolitan and futuristic on one hand, the archaic and costume-drama-ish on the other, and, in various ways, the colonial and post-colonial. There's a heartwarming story at its center, and a human at the end of the quest and the rainbow. (Who that human is can be predicted yet, once revealed, enjoyed.) It will require impressive CGI. Like STAR WARS or many (but certainly not all) comic books, THE ENDLESS VESSEL is light on characterisation, but it works because it is heavy on adventure, drama, vastness, and beauty. If you want a sneak preview, read the book.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, June 2023

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