It's been five years since I read my first Colette Black, the realisation of that fact also serving to remind me just how long this one has sat on my TBR shelves. That was 'Fourteen', which I liked but which was also the opener to a trilogy that Black has not yet expanded. This also starts a trilogy, but I had picked up the second and third books at roughly the same time as the first, all three having been published before the release of 'Fourteen'. I see that there's a fourth book that joined them earlier this year.
So it's about time that I read this one and, like 'Fourteen', it surprised me, if for different reasons.
Most obviously, this looks like a science fiction novel, with a traditionally futuristic font adorning the front cover and a back cover blurb about "parasitic aliens who consume human spinal fluid". The entire novel unfolds on the Noble Ark of the title, which is a spaceship carrying not only its usual array of goods but refugees from an attacked planet too. The lead characters are primarily Saeanians, humans who live on a colonised planet, and one Mwalgi. So yeah, surely it counts as science fiction?
Well, it does, but at heart this is really a romance novel, a genre I don't tend to read but which I can recognise when it shows up in other clothing. Should we strip away the setting in space in the future, we'd be left with a traditional love triangle with a taboo participant. Replace that setting with the antebellum deepsouth and Larkin Travgar, a half-Mwalgi, would become a mulatto, probably the illicit son of a slave and a plantation house lady, without the core story changing much at all.
If it was surprising to find this novel a romance clothed in sci-fi garb, it was also surprising to find how much I liked that. Certainly the progression isn't remotely surprising but I was rooting for the leads all the way.
In this setting, the taboo is pretty blatant. The human race has spread out into the galaxy, though it seems as if it's a relatively recent expansion. We've encountered aliens and the Mwalgi have become our nemesis species. The Mwalgi see humans as livestock, not least because they need to consume our CSF, cerebro-spinal fluid. This may be a remedy for a nutritional deficiency but most humans see it as a fix, making the Gis a species of addicts, animals driven by their urges.
That view is epitomised in Aline Taylor, a nineteen-year-old orphan under the care of Captain Trenoble of the Noble Ark. As you might imagine, she's an orphan because Mwalgi raiders murdered her entire family and she hasn't forgotten. Mwalgi pirates are an occupational hazard for ships like the Noble Ark, so she trains for and looks forward to the next attack, so she can sneak out into the front lines, baiting them and killing as many as she can. She certainly considers them to be animals, at least until Lar shows up.
Larkin Trovgar arrives with a pirate ship but promptly turns on what Aline would consider his own kind, fighting with the humans and, alongside Aline, making all the difference in the battle. He's very good, carrying the title of Morten, meaning he's special forces, and Aline believes she has an honor debt to him because of what he does. That means that she fights to keep him out of the brig, where he'd be tortured and possibly killed, and in the only place she can supervise him, her own quarters.
That doesn't make David happy and David's not just an ass but an entitled ass. He's from an important military family, he's a looker and he can turn on the charm. He could probably have almost any girl on board and rumours might suggest that he's already done so, but he wants Aline. When Lar shows up, he's been making good progress, from his perspective, and it's all a matter of time before he lands this conquest too, but Lar's an obstacle, who gradually becomes something else.
90% of the novel is taken up with what the final line of the back cover blurb promises us, namely, "As Larkin's presence brings out the best and worst in the human crew, and the Noble Ark is harassed by more Mwalgi ships, will Aline look past Larkin's alien heritage to find love, or will mistrust cost her everything?" I'm sure you can answer that supposedly rhetorical question right now without having read this novel.
What saves proceedings is that Black is a good writer, a very good writer for what is presumably a self-published novel (it was published through Createspace by Drapukamo Publishing of Higley, AZ). Put simply, I cared about Aline and, to a little less of a degree, Lar. Just as importantly, I disliked David from the outset and came to loathe him as things progress. I know those are the feelings Black wants me to have and I knew it after a precious few chapters, but she still had to bring those feelings out of me and her writing did that well.
Part of it may be how patient this is. We can shout from the cheap seats at Aline for being overly naïve. We can shout at David for being a cad and sometimes hiss at him, too, when he's even more of an ass than usual. But we have to, because Aline has to learn for herself what's going onnobody can tell her, even one of her close friends who likes her more than he can sayand David is clever enough to hide his darker side from her, if not from us. It takes a long while, but it has to and that depth of character makes this novel.
I also appreciated the early chapters, where Black sets up a new universe. I'd have liked a lot more exploration of human and Mwalgi interaction and the political and socio-economic state of the galaxy, but maybe we'll see more of that in the succeeding books. For now, she sets up not merely characters, but introduces some culture, tech and even tactics, from both sides. It's easily enough to ground us for now.
I did have a few issues, all relatively minor. There's some credulity stretching in how Lar is treated on board the Noble Ark, though Black does try not to stretch it too far. There's some plot convenience in how opinion starts to change, but it isn't outrageous. The one thing I didn't buy was the games, a traditional activity on board, not merely because of who gets to take part but because the scoring seemed contradictory and overly convenient.
I'm still wondering if Lar's accent is an issue to me or not. As a half-human, half-Mwalgi mostly fluent in English, Black keeps his alien origin apparent by giving him an accent. That makes sense, but he sometimes comes across as a French Yoda, which is far too ridiculous an image for us to take him quite as seriously as we should. Hopefully this diffuses away over following books, because he's far from stupid.
Another aspect that I'm not sure I'd consider an issue or not may tie mostly to what audience Black was aiming for. Alina's nineteen and Lar, when translated into human years, is only a year older. I'm not sure about David, but he's not far adrift and that means that we have a young set of leads. That, and a focus on their respective relationships, makes this seem like YA and, at points, like a school story for kids. We're never at school, but it sometimes feels like we should be and that goes double during the games. That does jar a little with the more adult themes that come into play.
Overall, I'm happy that I finally got round to this novel as my Arizona book for the month and I'm eager to read on to see how things progress after the thoroughly important changes at the end of this novel that I won't remotely spoil. The second book in the 'Mankind's Redemption' series is 'Desolation' and the third 'Mwalgi Justice', both of which are on my shelf at present. Book four, which I don't have, is 'Lenfay's Hell'. Now, I just need to figure out if I want to continue through them now or intersperse them with other Arizona books that I should have read long ago. I guess I need to decide soon! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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