Before we get started, I’d like to put out a content warning about partner abuse in this book. The abuse isn’t gratuitous, it’s pivotal to the plot, and you can’t skip over it. Please protect yourself.
The Space Between Worlds follows the story of Cara, a woman who travels between worlds, quite literally, thanks to a technology that allows her to travel through the multiverse. The caveat to this travel is that should a version of yourself already exist on the world travelled to, you will not survive the initial arrival. Because of this, people who have endured high-risk lives, such as Cara’s impoverished upbringing and life in Ashtown, a town exposed to the harsh elements of a heavily polluted Earth. Cara has died enough times that she is able to traverse to over 300 worlds safely, offering her the appearance of safety in the rich, environmentally-protected city of Wiley. But that protection pivots on the Eldridge company’s need for her particular skills and a secret she must keep at all costs.
In every parallel Earth Cara travels to, she meets different versions of her loved ones. Her mother ranges from loving prostitute to a disapproving zealot, her sister from innocent to cunning. Her once and former lover, Nik Nik, is always cruel, always abusive, and always the Mad Max-like emperor of Ashtown when she finds him. Sometimes he knows her, sometimes he doesn’t, but her Ashtown family remains under threat beneath his rule and their history. When she finds a version of Nik Nik that is not, everything in the all the worlds she thought she knew begins to unravel and Cara discovers that she’s not the only one at Eldridge with secrets.
Johnson’s novel makes for excellent commentary about privilege. The disparity of life between the rich Wileyites and the Ashtowners holds no secrets: we see the trauma of Cara’s lives, the terror of the Runners as a child, the rare kindness she found in the safety of her mother’s brothel. We see the obliviousness of the Wileyites, who have little idea what life is like outside their protected bubble.
I found the abusive sections difficult to read but the ending of this book, oh the ending. It is a breath of beauty, an ending so perfect I had to close my eyes and hug my e-reader for a moment. No, I’m not going to spoil it, but as a writer? This is the kind of ending I aspire to, an ending that takes into account everything that has come before, the story it is telling, and the world that has been built. I give the book 4 out of 5 stars, but the ending gets 6 out of 5.