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Pariah
Donovan #3
by W. Michael Gear
DAW, $26.00, 492pp
Published: May 2019

Three volumes into the 'Donovan' series, W. Michael Gear is only scratching the surface of his series arcs, which become more and more interesting each time out but are always left open for more exploration.

One of these series arcs that plays a part in each book without ever forming the point of any of them is time dilation. Donovan sits thirty lightyears from Earth, the furthest away of all its colonies and that means that ships have to use a wild mathematical concept called inverted symmetry in order to get there. While it's just a new name for the ability to go into hyperspace, Gear adds a little quirk that I've not seen outside this series, which is a firm sense of uncertainty.

Use inverted symmetry to exit regular space and you might not be able to re-enter it again. What's more, there's apparently no way to guess at how much time will pass in the regular universe while you're gone. Thus far, supply ships heading to Donovan have generally taken too long, if they've even got there at all. The reason that society on Donovan has evolved the way it has is because only one of seven ships intended to bring supplies and colonists actually made it. The next to arrive wasn't just late, the passage of time onboard ship was so vast that the entire population had died out during the journey.

Here, we get the opposite problem. The ship that arrives at the beginning of this novel is the Vixen, a survey ship sent to perform a planet-wide survey of Donovan, following its recent discovery. Of course, it's also late, but, from the perspective of the people on board the Vixen, travel time was zero. You can imagine how odd it must seem for people sent to Donovan to evaluate a virgin planet for the viability of colonisation, to get there in a flash but discover that it's fifty years on and a colony is already established.

That's particularly problematic for two new key players: Tamarland Benteen, corporate assassin, and Dr. Dortmund Weisbacher, conservationist. The latter has come to Donovan because he wants to, so that he can apply his particular fanatic theories of conservation to a planet with no people on it, while the former has come because he wants to get away from Earth, where he would have been arrested and executed for his crimes.

In both instances, arriving fifty years late is a disaster but the reaction they give to that discovery is very different. Weisbacher can't achieve his goals because the sheer existence of a colony inherently spoils his plans, so he rages against the unfairness of it all and manages to cause no end of trouble. Benteen, on the other hand, makes a clean getaway from Earth, only to discover that his patron is dead and his crimes well documented for fifty years. He can't pretend anything, but he can attempt to make the best of a bad situation by just taking over this frontier world.

Benteen comes up against Port Authority's resident psychopathic crime lord, Dan Wirth, of course, and their battle for supremacy is one of the primary plots in this third novel. The other features Talina Perez, who's the local tough girl and the Sheriff of Port Authority, but also a human being with a quetzal inside her, quetzals being a local apex predator. She's struggling to cope with this odd possession so she flies out to Mundo Base, abandoned in the second book, to explore what it means. Kylee Simonov, who grew up in Mundo in a sort of symbiotic relationship with a quetzal, helps her.

If you're wondering who the pariah of the title is, I'd suggest that it's a good way to describe all three of this major players. It's Benteen, because he has a particular set of violent skills and the will to use them to simply take over everything. It's Perez, because the quetzal inside her is making a lot of people nervous, especially after the killing of Kylee's Rocket. It's also the fanatic Dr. Weisbacher, who moves from Benteen's story to Perez's, generally making a nuisance of himself wherever he goes.

I've liked this series ever since it started and I'm happy that Gear is such a prolific writer. The ARC for this looks bulkier than it is, but there are still 570 pages here, even if it's a quick read. I already have book four on my TBR shelves, 'Unreconciled' and I'll dive into that next month. Blink and there's another one.

The reasons I like the series are many. I like the basic setup with a colony in space effectively a science fiction frontier town. The Benteen vs. Wirth battle is a western at heart, however grounded it is in science fiction tech and culture. I like the planet of Donovan, about which we're still learning. It's so alien that we and the colonists both are still coming to terms with just how alien it is and how our collective expectations of what constitutes intelligent life need to be reevaluated.

I also like the characters and I don't just mean this character or that. The cast is varied, from tough frontiersmen to zenlike administrators to fanatic doctors to psychopaths out for all they can get. These characters are drawn well to begin with but they generally grow, often while we're not paying an appropriate amount of attention. The character who grows most here isn't one that I've named thus far and her growth is mostly on the sly. Gear also has a really good balance between his will to kill off characters to whom we've connected and his restraint in doing that too often. It means we get shocked but not so often that we don't react appropriately.

And, perhaps above all, I like how the growth of knowledge drives the growth of characters, which in turn is starting to push the growth in society. It's a complex dynamic but Gear is a patient writer who's happy to let the growth his world needs happen as it needs to happen. We've got to the point where a simple discovery in book two or three is clearly going to filter through the process to change how society on Donovan functions by book seven or eight. I really like that.

The negative sides here are minor. I felt that a few sections of prose were a little clumsy and a few others of explanation were a little preachy, each of which could probably have done with a re-write, but that's only manifest because everything around them is so smooth so they stand out in the flow. I tend to just shrug a little and keep going, finding myself caught right back up in the flow a couple of paragraphs on.

And that flow is a notably strong one because Gear has so much experience in pacing that I want to keep turning those pages. In fact, I feel like I want to binge the 'Donovan' series of books the way I want to binge certain shows on TV and my biggest problem is that he hasn't written them all yet. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other titles in this series click here
For more titles by W Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear click here

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