Review: The Return by Joseph Helmreich

March 22, 2017
Review: The Return by Joseph HelmreichThe Return by Joseph Helmreich
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on March 14th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 256
Format: Finished hardcover
Source: Publisher

Thanks to Thomas Dunne Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

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Based on its topics, The Return is what I would describe as hard science fiction—lots of heavy emphasis on technical details, especially surrounding the fields of astronomy and quantum physics. The result is a lot of complex and advanced scientific theory going over my head and plenty more technobabble I’m sure I didn’t quite grasp. So why did I enjoy this book much? Well, for one thing it was thoroughly addicting. Combining an altogether engaging sci-fi premise with the fast-paced intensity of a breathless thriller, Joseph Helmreich’s clever debut is a wild and unexpected journey worth taking.

The day humanity found out that it was not alone in the universe began just like any other, with the exception of a few pockets in the scientific community all abuzz with the anticipation for that night’s lunar eclipse coinciding with the winter solstice. It is an occasion rare enough that a news television station has arranged a live broadcast on site in the Bernasconi Hills of Southern California with expert physicist-turned-celebrity scientist Dr. Andrew Leland to cover the event. This is why, when a mysterious spacecraft suddenly swoops down upon the TV crew after the eclipse, Dr. Leland’s subsequent abduction by aliens was captured entirely on film and televised live on air for all to see.  The footage was so clear that not even the fiercest skeptics could deny the evidence of what happened that day. The next six years saw drastic changes in almost all facets of life, ranging from mass panic to renewed dedication to studying the space sciences, people either reembracing or abandoning their faith, lots of discussion and speculation about what might have happened to Leland and where he might be now.

At least the last question was answered one day when the world received another shock—in the middle of the South American desert, a bedraggled wanderer was picked up by authorities and identified as none other than Dr. Andrew Leland. But instead of enlightening everyone with the details of what he saw and experienced in the last six years, Leland claims that he remembers nothing. In fact, he denies having been abducted at all. Soon after, he becomes a recluse, retreating completely from the public eye. For some people though, that simply would not do. Shawn Ferris is a young physics grad student who has been obsessed with the life of Andrew Leland ever since he watched the famous video of the abduction as a young boy. He wants answers and is determined to get them by tracking his hero down. In doing so, however, what Shawn did not expect to find are others hunting Leland too, except their intentions are not so nice.

To my utter astonishment, the publisher description actually contains a lot more detail and potential spoilers for its own story—though I suppose with the sheer number twists and turns in this book, they probably figured revealing a couple of them wouldn’t hurt. If you truly want to be surprised though, I would suggest avoiding the blurb if you haven’t read it already, and also not to seek out anything more about the plot. Trust me, it’ll make finding out what happens so much better…

While in essence The Return is a science fiction novel, its style, format and pacing is more in keeping with a suspense-thriller by employing devices like a third-person omniscient point of view, lots of POV jumps and incidental characters, cliffhangers at the end of chapters, etc. If these are the kinds of stories you like, then this book will work very well for you. It is also in large part a mystery, keeping readers guessing in anticipation at what the big picture is. At first, the story is told in two disparate threads, one following Shawn Ferris in America and the second taking place in Spain, with no hints as to how they are related. But as events gradually unfold in each storyline, the connections start to form. From the very start, I was impressed with Helmreich’s sleek and polished writing style and the clever way he structured the plot. And despite the amount of scientific jargon, reading this never felt like a chore thanks to the writing being very readable and the punchy pace keeping me from putting the book down.

Perhaps the only part I felt dubious about was the ending, which wrapped up much too quickly and felt just a little too convenient, considering the elaborate development that went into the ramp-up to this point. But even though the ending wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed—not when many of the events in the final parts of this book are just as shocking and unexpected as those in the first half, and I confess I was even left feeling gut-punched by several of those surprising twists.

This is a genre I often struggle with, but The Return succeed in drawing me in with its smart and intriguing premise. While it is not completely without its flaws, for a debut effort it is nonetheless impressive, featuring a story that often kept me perched on the edge of my seat. Joseph Helmreich’s writing is also solid and very “cinematic” in its quality—sharply vivid and immediate, delivering maximum thrills and entertainment. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would recommend it for readers who enjoy a kick of an adrenaline rush with their sci-fi.

Stephenie Sheung
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