Book Review: Dali by E.M. Hamill

DaliWelcome, one and all, to another MDM Projects book review. Today, I’m looking at Dali, a sci-fi novel by E.M. Hamill. By way of disclosure, I received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Background: E.M. Hamill is the pen name that YA author Elisabeth Hamill uses when writing adult fiction. In her YA guise, she has published the award winning Song Magick  and its sequel Truthsong. Dali is her first full length adult piece and is published by NineStar Press. She also appears in the NineStar Press anthology ‘Beneath The Layers’.

Dali follows its titular character during a time of great upheaval as they struggle to come to terms with a tragic loss while embarking on a dangerous mission to not only free some captives, but to prevent an act of terrorism.

The Good: When a book is named after the lead character, it seems only fair to start with said character when it comes to critique. So, Dali Tamareia is a third gendered changeling. What this means is that they are naturally neutral gendered, but that they shift to being more recognisably male of female depending on the needs of the situation at hand (or in some cases, the needs of those that they’re close to). Dali is, in many ways, a truly tragic character. When we join them, they’ve already lost their husband, their wife, and their unborn child, and are essentially on a self-destructive path with an unwittingly-assisted-suicide as their final destination. The writing with regards to this is really top notch, and it adds a relatable human element to the intergalactic setting. With all that occurs, you can’t help but root for Dali, and whenever you start to seek something happening that could potentially push them into a different bad situation, you just end up rooting for them even more. Between the fascinating hormone induced gender shifting and the way the character progresses through the tale, E.M. Hamill has created a great lead here.

The intergalactic setting I mentioned is also worthy of praise. The political undercurrent that helps tie the story together is set up in such a way that you’re always aware of its presence, but it never intrudes into the main narrative to such a degree that it becomes your main focus. Instead, it makes sure that you keep it in mind while still looking where you’re supposed to at any given time. This same method is also applied to other parts of the world building: The locations we visit are given plenty of background to flesh them out, and the various alien species that we meet are given enough detail to give you a picture of what they look like while still leaving a little to the imagination. The joy of this is that the book is essentially an intricate balancing act of showing you what you need while keeping you focussed on the important part: the story itself.

And what a story it is! The pacing here is really good, with the action coming just when you need it and the plot heavy sections breezing by thanks to the natural character interactions. I’m making a point of avoiding spoilers here, so I can’t go into too much detail, but there’s certainly enough going on to keep your interest throughout. Oh,and who doesn’t love a good Princess Bride reference or twenty?

The book does feature some erotic scenes. Now, my general rule with such moment sis that I don’t mind if they a) fit with the story, and b) don’t last so long that they force you to feel disconnected from the main plot points. Now, in this case, this was a surprise for me because I honestly wasn’t aware that that there were any erotic scenes in the book. So much for research, eh? They work though. The descriptives never fall into being clinical, and their length is such that they do what they need to and allow you to move on without overstaying their welcome. I also liked that they genuinely served a purpose within the confines of the story. Or several, in fact. Representations of Dali’s gender shifting, an embodiment of their state of mind, espionage … it’s all there and it all makes sense without feeling like the author has just come up with an excuse to thrown them in.

The Bad: There’s really very little to mention here. In terms of content warning, while nothing is shown, there is mention of rape. The trials and tribulations of third gender people may also hit close to home for some, and erotic scenes simply aren’t for everyone.

I would say that you can probably join the dots a little easier than the characters in the book can, but that’s not necessarily something that should put potential readers off. If I’m being really picky, I was left a little conflicted by the end simply because I was torn between wanting to see Dali end up with a particular character that they didn’t while at the same time not wanting them too and instead wanting them to put the ghosts of their past to rest. While this story has a conclusion though, it certainly feels like a sequel or two is possible, so maybe that’ll be revisited anyway.

Final View: Dali is a wonderful piece of science fiction that does a lot of things well while offering an interesting view on gender. The concepts are well conceived, the lead is sympathetic, and the story runs at a pace that avoids getting itself bogged down by unnecessary rambling. In all, a sterling effort that is more than deserving of a full 5 out of 5. Check it out if you’re a lover of sci-fi or simply want something a little different.

Final Score: 5 / 5

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