I am, and have aways been, a hard science fiction fan when the science doesn’t overwhelm or even replace the storytelling. And Reynolds is one of my faves, right up there with Robert Sawyer and Vernor Vinge. I picked this one up and wasn’t sure I was going to review it until I spent some time thinking about it after I closed the last page. And then I realized that this book has something really significant to say.
Adrana and her sister Arafura live in a time so far removed from our time that it’s even more a stretch than transplanting a 1st century serf into 2021. Even though it’s been hundreds of thousands of years of human history, human nature is fundamentally the same. I think it would be remarkable for an author to conceive of human nature being significantly alien to us so I’m okay with that as the status quo. The technology of this time isn’t that alien, it’s about what we’ve come to expect from science fiction. But, the history of all those hundreds of thousands of years is what’s significant.
Adrana and Fura live with their father on what I think is an artificial world although it isn’t described for us. The author wants to put us into their world without exposition so the things that are familiar to them and taken for granted are not explained to us. Adrana is of age and eager to escape the bonds of her childhood and the small world they live in. While out with Fura and their faithful robotic nanny in a market, she finds an opportunity to escape. She is tested and found to have the necessary traits useful to a spaceship crews and gets a job offer. Fura is still underage but also has the necessary talent so the captain sees a golden opportunity to have twice the skills than he could normally afford to pay for. Legally, Adrana can claim guardianship of her sister so both of them leave their planet on Monetta’s Mourn captained by Captain Rackamore. Their father challenges the legal claim trying to get his youngest daughter back and the Captain ends up feeling that he must return her; however, before that can happen the girls get a taste of what it means to be crew on a salvage ship.
For that is what most ships do they salvage what is still left behind from all those previous eras. And it’s the salvaging that proves most interesting and alien to us. Each ship needs a crew complement with specific skillsets. There is one that predicts when a salvage can be done, another that assesses the worth of the salvage, another who knows how to break into the target and one who communicates. It is this last skill that is hardest to come by as the crew member must have the right genetics to be able to communicate with the alien skull that provides the captain with both the ability to communicate with planets to sell his goods, but also allows him to eavesdrop on other ships and possibly identify a salvage before others do. And it is this talent of which both girls have in abundance; a talent that is sure to guarantee them wealth and success; but, as it turns out, makes them a valuable target.
After successfully proving their worth, Fura is loath to leave and return to her small, dull life with her father. The captain is determined to abide by the legal claim but before she can be returned, the ship is attacked and the girls are the real target. The infamous Captain Bosa Sennon (think Dread Pirate Roberts but without the fun) is the scourge of the universe and her ship and technology outstrip most others making her well-nigh unstoppable when she sets her mind on something. Captain Rackamore and Bosa have a history as she once kidnapped his daughter. He knows the encounter isn’t likely to end with everyone alive but he hopes to know the fate of his long-lost daughter the answer is more heinous than he could have imagined. Bosa has heard that he has two very talented Bone Readers and wishes to acquire them for her own ship. She knew there were two of them but Adrana managed to hide her sister and another crew member pretended to be the second Bone Reader. After Bosa has taken what she wanted and destroyed what she didn’t, Fura has to figure out how to survive on the disabled ship. As it turned out, Bosa missed murdering one other person, Prozor, and despite her suspicion on how Fura managed to survive, the two women end up helping each other. Fura is eventually returned to her father but she harbors a deep conviction that she must find Bosa, rescue her sister, and murder Bosa. She has only a few short months to put up with her father before she is legally of-age and be able to find a ship. She doesn’t know how exactly she’ll do it and she knows it will probably take a long while, but intends to find a ship and crew willing to go up against Bosa. Unfortunately, her father, distraught over losing one daughter, is completely unable to allow the second to leave. He allows the family doctor to drug her, in order to keep her both compliant and underage. But with the help of the family’s robotic nanny, dismantled and forgotten in a closet, and the help of Prozor she is able to escape. A couple of spoilers there but really a small part of the story.
She and Prozor do manage to find employment on a ship but it’s nothing close to the quality of the Monetta’s Mourn and Fura despairs that the crew would ever be able to confront the likes of Bosa, who managed to take out one of the universe’s most capable captains and crew. But with their expertise and skills, they subtlely manage to direct their new captain into salvage ventures he’d never before dared.
The salvage operation is unlike anything I’ve seen described in a story before. It’s alien and the author chose not to tell us anything to clarify our understanding since doing so wouldn’t be something any of the characters would have a need to do. They salvage ancient artifacts and technology from something called a “bauble.” We can’t be sure exactly what such a thing is as they are variously described as big as a planet or quite small. But each bauble appears to be protected by some kind of force shield. Some people have the skill to predict when and for how long a shield will be down again, we’re not allowed any explanation of how that is accomplished. So the successful salvager knows how to find such baubles, time their approach, and judge how valuable the salvage could be. And the competition for the best baubles is fierce, often causing a battle. And over all of that, is the constant threat that Bosa will find you and take your salvage; as that is her game, she doesn’t risk the salvage, she just steals what she wants.
Prozor and Fura know of a bauble that Captain Rackamore once worked; however, there was technology left behind of which he wanted no part. But it is exactly what they need to arm the crew and give them an edge against Bosa. Getting it out without losing anyone, and then baiting a trap for Bosa; all without telling their new crew and captain what they are planning consumes the last quarter of the book.
Other than the conflict, there isn’t much in the way of an endgame for our characters. So the author provides a small little mystery that remains unsolved at the end of the story. The most common currency is something called a “quoin” and while we’re fed a tidbit at the beginning, it isn’t until the end when Fura confronts Bosa that we’re told why Bosa is the way she is, and why she does what she does…and it’s all about the quoins. It’s a tasty little mystery and while we are told some things, I have some ideas about what they all will eventually mean. The characters are well-described and the worldbuilding is impressive, even with the obvious gaps for the reader.
Now here’s the significance of this particular story, at least to me: no story about the huge expanse of space has ever made me feel small or insignificant, as so many authors describe. But the weight of hundreds of thousands of years of humanity is quite another thing when you really think about it. In all that time, thousands of civilizations have risen and fell, leaving behind small things that are all that is left of them. And in all that time, one imagines that humans have pretty much done everything they imagined and gone anywhere they pleased. So here’s what plagues me: what is left to do?
The author will continue to focus her story on our protagonists, I’m sure; but I’m hoping to get more tidbits thrown our way about what it all means: the baubles, the artifacts, Bosa’s role, and from where in the universe do the alien skulls come and what powers them?
So looking forward to the next book “Shadow Captain.” Stay tuned… ~~ Catherine Book
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