Those Beyond the Wall by Micaiah Johnson

Scales is the best at what she does: She is an enforcer who keeps the peace in Ashtown, a rough, climate-ravaged desert town. But that fragile peace is fractured when a woman is mangled and killed within Ash’s borders, right in front of Scales’s eyes. Even more incomprehensible is that there was seemingly no murderer.

When more mutilated bodies start to turn up, both in Ashtown and in the wealthier, walled-off Wiley City, Scales is tasked with finding the cause—and putting an end to it. She teams up with a frustratingly by-the-books partner and a brusque-but-brilliant scientist in order to uncover the truth, delving into both worlds to track down the invisible killer. But what they find points to something bigger and more corrupt than they could’ve ever foreseen—and it could spell doom for the entire world.

COVER ART: Edwin A. Vasquez (Book Design)
YEAR: 2024
LENGTH: 384 pages
AGE: Adult
GENRE: Dystopian, Literary, Science Fiction

Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Main Character(s), Bi/Pan Main Character(s), Genderqueer/Nonbinary Secondary Character(s), Trans Secondary Character(s).

*I received a free review copy in exchange for an honest review of this book. 

THOSE BEYOND THE WALL is a stunning follow-up to THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS, building on many of the same themes of classism, racism, xenophobia, protection, abuse, and exploitation from a very different angle. It tells the story of an Ashtown runner trying to stop an existential threat from another world without being trampled by the city of Wiley in the process. 

This focuses on Ashtown and its power structures through the perspective of Mr. Scales, a runner who is close friends with Mr. Cheeks and can’t stand former Ruralite, Mr. Cross. Scales is an engaging and somewhat unreliable narrator, using the idea of truth and stories in a metatexual way to complicate her tale, while engaging with the essence of what happened. 

The main storyline is new, set up by events in the previous book, but at a distance of years, and with a different main character, which makes a huge difference to the tone and feel of the book. THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS established the idea that in order to travel between worlds, you can only go to a place where your doppelgänger is dead. This means that many white, rich (or even just middle-class) people in Wiley were likely to be alive on too many worlds to make good travelers. This meant that poor, brown, Ashtowners who had been exploited for generations were recruited to be travelers. In THOSE BEYOND THE WALL, Scales is differently concerned with power. She's not asking Wiley city for legitimacy or recognition. Her understanding of the give-and-take of power in relationships doesn’t shy away from the pervasive nature of power dynamics, and she's willing to manipulate the flow of that power as much as she's aware of it. Scales is a fascinating and mostly (but not completely) trustworthy narrator. She seems to be telling the story from the perspective of being at its end and relaying what happened, something not uncommon for first person narratives, though the way she omits, elides, or shifts around information means there's room for some future narrator to disagree with her telling.

I like how deliberately sex work positive this book is. It goes beyond the presence of the House, and the importance of Exlee, deliberately pushing back against the bigoted attitudes of the ruralites, and a former ruralite in particular. 

THOSE BEYOND THE WALL can probably be read on its own, with the relevant backstory explained succinctly enough to make sense to anyone who hasn't read THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS, or serving as a welcome refresher to anyone for whom it's been a while. As a sort-of sequel, this gives updates and closure for many of the significant characters from the first book. For some, those answers are found in their deaths, but for many of them, this is the story of what happens when Ashtown has to protect themselves from other worlds, and from the classist xenophobes in the city who have benefited from and upheld an apartheid regime. The specific plot would make sense to someone who hadn’t read the first one, partly because it’s a completely different narrator with a completely different perspective on those events, which allows Scales to be an entry point for someone who knows nothing about the first book. However, the ending of THOSE BEYOND THE WALL provides closure to several things that are emotionally left open at the end of THE SPACE BETWEEN WORLDS. Getting those answers without having asked a question is much less satisfying than it would be for someone who has reason to care about those details. Also, now that I’ve read this, I need to go do a reread of both books in order, because characters who are very important here had different levels of importance in that first book, but I’m pretty sure several of them were present there, beyond the obvious ones like Nik Nik and Cara. Scales has a completely different relationship to Nik Nik than Cara did, in a way that’s fascinating but never let me forget that even the less abusive version of Nik Nik is soaked in death and violence. When looking at sequels, tracking changes in narrative voice has felt more and more perfunctory as I’ve read books that keep the same narrator across the series or have broadly similar ideological goals, such that they’re working in similar directions. This was not the case for THOSE BEYOND THE WALL. Mr. Scales is not the same person as Cara from the first book. They have such fundamentally disparate perspectives that they may as well have grown up in different worlds, even if they technically are from the same one. I’m pretty certain that this particular world is the same one where Cara and Dell made their stand against Adam, but even if I'm wrong about that it doesn't matter much for the experience of reading THOSE BEYOND THE WALL. By closely interacting with an all-consuming and abusive person at different stages of his life, both Cara and Scales were shaped by their relationships to Nik Nik in ways that left indelible marks, but he is so different with each of them that they're unable to relate to each other's experiences as if they were with the same person. Given all the parallel worlds, it probably isn't even technically the same man, but I'd need to do a much closer read (and maybe make a chart or spreadsheet) in order to be certain.

I don’t know if this will be the last book, it feels like it could be, and I hope, for the characters' sakes, that what happens next isn’t exciting enough to require someone to be a main character ever again. That being said, I will happily devoured any and all books set in this world, as they are truly stunning. 

Graphic/Explicit CW for grief, xenophobia, classism, blood, injury detail, physical abuse, body horror, genocide, apartheid, police brutality, murder, parental death, death

Moderate CW for cursing, racism, vomit, toxic friendship, toxic relationship, confinement, child abuse, transphobia, misgendering, gun violence, war.

Minor CW for ableist language, infidelity, sexual content, drug use, drug abuse

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