Elly Bangs’ debut novel boasts the enthusiasm of a new literary voice that’s keen to explore striking worlds and engaging characters, but ultimately makes tentative steps instead of great leaps forward in forging that voice. Unity is a cerebrally-charged sci-fi thriller with dollops of aquatic cyberpunk and mental trauma thrown in that always keeps your attention, but feels like it doesn’t fully embrace its complimentary mechanics to become a genuinely stand-out debut. Unity packs in multiple protagonists with multiple perspectives in its literary language, making use of several first-person narrations that keeps the novel, and reader, on their toes.
Unity tells the duelling character-driven action dramas of tech worker Danae and mercenary Alexei, who Danae hires to guide her out of their crammed, multicultural underwater metropolis they call home. They make for an engrossing duo of leads; a battered, bruised and unconfident, pair of human beings. She with the ability to experience other people’s grief and he often blinded by haunting, violent visions. It’s these two voices that Unity primarily flirts back and forth between as the pair, along with Danae’s partner Naoto, make a perilous journey to freedom on the surface as enemies new and old hunt down Danae.
The zigzagging of storytellers gives Unity a relentless energy that maintains its chaotic momentum throughout, but Bangs gives Danae and Alexei such similar narrative voices that their personalities become quite blurred as the story progresses, clouding the distinction between the pair and squandering the novel’s use of first-person narratives. Given the similarity between the pair’s personalities, perhaps that’s the idea, but it feels like a missed opportunity to make Unity all the more a dynamic reading experience. Given that Danae and Alexei are presented from the off as being mentally scarred and forced to navigate their internal wounds throughout the novel, the language used often feels rather too clean and concise in communicating this, like the reader doesn’t fully bear witness to their inner anguish that Unity otherwise makes us feel empathy for.
Elsewhere, Unity manages to remain taut, inventive and entertaining throughout. The opening bursts of action suggest something close to aquapunk before traversing deadly landscapes beyond the oceans. Unity gives equal balance to introspective navigation of its characters without losing its grip on some thrilling post-apocalyptic adventure that’s communicated with sharp descriptive detail that’s plentiful without succumbing to being overblown. The psychological themes that ripple throughout Unity function as an electrifying wave that carries the action along, humanising these damaged characters. There still remains the nagging feeling that Unity isn’t not brave enough to fully exploit its narrative functions to craft something more unhinged, which its characters lean towards being, but it succeeds in being a smart, riotous adventure.