“A demoness is what men call a goddess they cannot control.” So opens The Never Tilting World and the legendary song of the ancestral goddess Inanna, with a call to powerful women and the systems that seek to manipulate that power.
Aeon was once a steadily spinning world, ruled by generations of twin goddesses beholden to a secret, terrible ritual. Until seventeen years ago, when one of the goddesses refused the ritual and caused the Breaking. The planet stopped turning, a Great Abyss splitting the earth into two unsustainable halves: Aranth, a storm-tossed freezing never-night, and a brutal, desert wasteland that houses the Golden City. Now, unbeknownst to each other, two young goddesses and their respective unlikely allies find themselves fighting their way to the Abyss from either side of the planet in an attempt to restore the wreckage of their world.
Rin Chupeco crafts an intricate, immersive setting that sprawls across cinematic landscapes and elemental magic, centered on brilliant, inviting characters. There’s Lan, a powerful fighter and Catseye ranger who’s tasked to guard one of the goddesses on her journey. She can also channel Aether gates, which allow her to heal, though she discovers the limits of those powers. To Lan’s credit, she didn’t know Odessa was a goddess when she fell in love with her! She’s a professional. But Odessa, book-loving, passionate, and incredibly powerful, isn’t about to let that get in the way of their feelings. As they journey together towards the Abyss, however, Odessa must confront the galla, demons from the underworld who, one by one, grant her gifts that unlock greater and greater depths to her powers—at a terrible cost. Lan would do anything to protect her, but can she defend against a prophesied fate?
On the other side of the earth is Haidee, the free-spirited goddess-mechanika, who finds her way to Arjun, a grouchy, fire-wielding amputee with more of a heart of gold than he’d ever let on. They nearly kill each other when they meet—an orphan and a nomad, Arjun was raised to blame the goddesses for the Breaking, after all—but they end up saving each other in surprising, tender ways.
All four of them have been told stories about how the world came to be how it is, stories that cannot all be true at once. Each was raised to blame the other side, the other goddess, to understand themselves in relation to the Breaking that severed their world. Their parents’ generation ruined the planet, perhaps irrevocably, and at least one side has chosen to spin a terrible lie about how it happened. If there is any hope to be had in restoring Aeon, it rests on the choices of two young women.
The Never Tilting World is a vivid, exquisitely realized, and compellingly unique YA fantasy. Chupeco balances all four voices with a deft hand, and tautly paces this high-stakes, planet-traversing adventure. The title sets up a visceral promise, and Chupeco makes great use of it. In a world of elemental magic, a planet frozen on its axis throws the system off-balance. Aeon’s magic is rooted in elemental gates, and certain gates can be best accessed in certain environments. The inhabitants on either side of the world have had to adapt their entire lifestyles to this shift.
Though this is a wholly otherworldly setting, some of the worst villains are still climate change and those who refuse to acknowledge how it happened, impeding any possible efforts to set it right. There are manipulative politicians here, and young people struggling to untangle the truth from the propaganda they’ve been taught—all while navigating a sea-desert, shadow demons, and magical elemental gates.
Throughout this unapologetic, fierce indictment, the narrative is centered on complex, well-developed women, and mighty goddesses are at the core of the story’s mythos. Toxic masculinity is consciously, gloriously absent, including from the one male protagonist, and though many of these characters make terrifying and dangerous choices, I always feel safe in Chupeco’s writing.
The story is action-packed, rife with danger and beasts borne out of a ravaged world. It builds clever, well-placed twists and surprises that click into place satisfyingly and more than once made me gasp aloud. The protagonists confront profound treachery and love alike, finding both where they may least expect it. Chupeco is an expert at atmosphere, and they render this dual world and their four protagonists with equally lush, striking prose.
At the same time, she weaves two desperately romantic storylines into the plot. Both are messy and risky, and both are beautifully tender. Star-crossed lovers Odessa and Lan care deeply about each other, but are stymied by status and Odessa’s darkening fate. The other pair is a delicious slow burn built on banter and mutual respect. No character is ever in danger specifically because of their queerness, and the queer love in this novel is aching and bright. It’s a searingly powerful experience to read two queer, compelling protagonists navigate this evocative fantasy world brimming with magic and monsters.
The Never Tilting World is a rich, epic tale and a vindicating joy to read. Throughout its intricate worldbuilding and impressive scope, it never loses sight of its memorable characters. Chupeco strikes a perfect blend of creative action, redemptive romance, righteous rage, and fresh magic. The Never Tilting World will leave readers both wholly satisfied and eager to return to Aeon for the sequel.
The Never Tilting World is available from HarperTeen.
Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.