This is a standard futuristic spacefaring type of story. Humans have, as they tend to do in these stories, spread across the known universe and it’s been so long since the original diaspora that memories of Terra have all but faded; only myth remains. Other species abound and the Human Commonwealth tries to bring a semblance of order and law to the universe. First contact with a new species has protocols…
Esen-alit-Quar is a very special individual; she is one of the last five of her kind and she is on her first assignment to observe a new species. But Esen and her web-kin are not of the Commonwealth; their mission is simply to observe and preserve information. Esen and her web-kin are shifters; the only ones in the universe who can change their form. This is, of course, the way they can safely observe other forms of life they become them. When Esen’s mission is compromised in the first year by a Commonwealth First Contact Team, she knows the Eldest is not going to be forgiving. But she really didn’t have a choice: it was ingrained in her that all life is to be protected. And once she figured out that the planetary authorities were well aware of extraterrestrial life and they intended to completely destroy all trace of the First Contact Team as they had been doing for a very long time, to keep their population ignorant she had to do all she could to save the last surviving human of the landing party, Paul Ragem. Also ingrained in her training was the rule that she must never, never show her true form to anyone.
Paul Ragem happens to be, of all things, a sort of exobiologist a specialist in alien species. But Esen defies all he knows and he’s desperate to understand just what she is beyond being his savior.
While Esen and Paul are doing their best to survive and escape; there’s another creature of interest a monster in space bringing death to mining colonies, ships and even whole planets. And the monster is hunting web-kin! It falls to Esen to stop the creature before it kills the only family she knows.
And, finally, there is Kearn. Kearn was a specialist on the First Contact Team and ended up as Acting Captain since the Captain was a casualty in their last mission. Kearn is a bit OCD and feels most comfortable when things are predictable and understandable. Esen is, by her very nature, neither of those things. And things get really complicated when Kearn observes the monster and through a misunderstanding believes the monster is Esen. His dogged perseverance to track her down and destroy her is almost admirable…unless you happen to be the trackee.
The flow of the chapters alternates between Esen and Paul in flashbacks, then Esen reporting to her web-kin and particularly the Eldest Assimilator, and then Kearn, with very small descriptions of the progress of the monster. It was a captivating flow that kept all my interest through to the end. The characters were very well-presented and the plot was great. A good sci-fi read always has a mystery at its center and this one’s a doozy. I loved Esen and I admire how the author was able to…hide…certain aspects of Esen from her readers that will be very significant in the next book. It’s all in the last page. ~~ Catherine Book
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