In ancient Egypt, Osiris was the god of the underworld, ruler of life after death. In E.J. Swift’s debut novel, Osiris, the titular city is supposedly the last city on earth. It floats on the water, far away from the land-based world that descended into chaos and ruin, which was followed by the Great Storm, then 50 years of radio silence. Osiris is permanently divided between the Citizens of the privileged east, and the overpopulated refugee sectors in the west, with tensions between the sides on the verge of a flashpoint.
Adelaide is the only daughter of the Rechnov family, Osiris’ co-founders; she’s a popular socialite in the east. Her mentally unstable twin Axel has disappeared, and she’s the only family member holding out hope that he’s still alive. Vikram Bai, a westerner recently released from underwater prison, where he was serving time for his involvement with a group of revolutionaries, seeks aid funding to prevent disaster in the west with another cold winter coming on. Serendipity brings them together to form a tenuous alliance, with Vikram helping Adelaide’s search while they work to convince the eastern Council—including Adelaide’s father and brothers—to help the city’s impoverished side.
Osiris wants to be Brave New World with a dash of 1984, but it’s more akin to Divergent via Waterworld, with a generous amount of the microcosmic societal upheaval from BioShock mixed in. It deals with financial inequality, social justice, climate change, energy crises, and global apocalypse, all while balancing the competing archetypes of a black sheep in a prominent family and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Swift alternates between Adelaide and Vikram as narrators, a useful tool in escaping the recent trend of first-person post-apocalyptic narratives trapped in one character’s point of view.
By committing ample space to the new partnership helping the refugees, quelling rebellion, and searching for Axel, Swift shortchanges each element of the story that could fill out its own book. But their developing professional and personal relationship fleshes out two compelling characters with deep histories. They provide access into a dearth of familiar family drama and rags-to-riches narratives, but this particular combination in a futuristic setting commands attention.
For all the intriguing setup and claustrophobic world-building, the final third reins in all the narrative tension, saving the bigger questions and conflicts for the forthcoming volumes in the proposed trilogy. The circumstances around the crumbling of society, the viability of life on land, and even the fate of several main characters are left hanging in a vague balance in the epilogue.
Osiris presents a plausible extreme to the increasingly widening global economic gap, and provides enough detail to let readers accept the world on its own terms and move onto its citizens’ plight. The problem is that Osiris doesn’t balance a satisfying plot that can wrap up in one volume with the overall arc, which puts an increasing amount of pressure on the subsequent books to provide an eventual payoff. After an unsatisfying, abrupt ending, ambition seems to be outpacing execution.