Reading works from debut authors can be a game of Russian Roulette, especially if the book has been self-published (This book is not, in fact, self-published, but I thought it was for some reason.) You sometimes find a gem, and other times you wind up beating your head against the wall wishing you’d never won that giveaway. This time, I’m pleased to say, I found something quite enjoyable. Unlike most of the relatively-unknown books and authors I’ve featured in these reviews, I didn’t actually seek this one out. Mr. Bruno was apparently trolling Goodreads reviews, found the one I did of Ancillary Justice, and figured I’d be a good candidate to review his own book. He was incredibly courteous, and of course I cannot speak highly enough of anyone who gives me free books, but beyond that the book was actually very enjoyable. Not perfect, there are some minor quibbles to be hashed out, but very enjoyable nevertheless.
It’s been five hundred years since the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, but humanity remains unbowed. We’ve spread throughout the solar system, scrounging and scraping a meager living wherever we can aided by the Kepler Circuit, a series of space stations set up by the Ancients of Earth before the planet burned. The stations of the Circuit are linked by the Solar Arks, traveling at nearly the speed of light from world to world distributing supplies and resources without bias. Most of the solar system is controlled by the New Earth Tribunal, a fanatically religious sect forged around the idea that the Ancients ruined the Earth with their technological and scientific hunger for knowledge that was not theirs to attain. They believe that all humans are linked together into a New-Agey collective spirit that remains tied to the Earth, and that someday the Earth will heal itself and we will be able to return home if we prove ourselves worthy. This has not, of course, stopped them from continuing to mine the Gravitum from the core of the Earth, allowing for humanity’s continued existence away from our home planet. Cassius Vale is an ex-Tribune, exiled to his home on the moon of Titan for heresy until the Tribunal is forced to ask for his help dealing with a string of attacks on their transports. Little do they realize that Vale himself is responsible for the attacks, or that these hijackings are only just the beginnings of his plan to bring down the Tribunal he has come to hate. ADIM is an android built in secret by Vale to further his plans. The Tribunal has outlawed all robotics research, declaring such artificial life to be abominations that have no place in helping us reclaim the Earth, even waging a genocidal war to wipe out as many of them as possible. ADIM is wholly devoted to his creator, and for his part Vale sees ADIM as a surrogate son. Together, they may very well bring down civilization as the Tribunal has shaped it for centuries. Sage Volus is an Executor for the Tribunal, operating behind the scenes to find and destroy their enemies wherever they hide. Her latest mission takes her to Ceres Prime, the asteroid colony that constitutes the largest threat to Tribunal domination of the entirety of the solar system. Talon Rayne is a Ceresian miner, formerly a general and bodyguard for one of the clan leaders who dominate the colony before a failed assassination attempt left him slowly dying and obsessed with providing a better life for his daughter before he succumbs. These four characters are on a collision course with one another, and when the dust finally settles fate only knows who will be left standing.
Like I said, I really enjoyed this. It was really a great story, especially for a debut work. The prose was simple but cinematic, and you could “see” everything that happened very vividly. I understand the author is currently studying screenwriting, so the visual focus may have something to do with that. The characters were well-formed and complex, not the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that populate the horde of mediocre fiction the age of internet publishing has unleashed upon us. There were minor issues of grammar, punctuation, and word choice, but much less than I’ve seen in other Indie works. (“He was a shadow of his formal self” vs. “former self,” things like that.)
I did have two character-related complaints; one a matter of taste and one I think is more a case of semi-universally accepted practice. I’ll start with this latter one: Cassius Vale is too perfect. He’s an interesting character, don’t get me wrong–I was fascinated by his character, sympathized with him, even occasionally found myself rooting for him despite my misgivings with his work (I’ll address that in a minute), but he really had little standing in his way. No, that’s not it exactly. He had all kinds of things standing in his way, a whole slew of obstacles to overcome before he can unleash his plan to bring down the tribune…and every single domino falls just the way he plans it. Every single thing that happens is according to his design, or at least easily dealt with. He’s got an incredibly complex scheme running here, and not a single wrench gets thrown into it. Maybe this isn’t as much a problem as I think it is; it certainly didn’t significantly detract from my enjoyment of the story, but I would have preferred to see him have to adapt on the fly to changing conditions in order to achieve his goals. A more minor complaint, more a matter of taste, is that while I enjoyed all of the POV characters found here, I found most of them very hard to root for. Cassius Vale is a snarky antihero with a tragedy in his past, and I think I’ve adequately demonstrated my weakness for those characters, but he’s ruthlessly pursuing a vendetta that cost countless innocent lives. ADIM is awesome, but working towards the same ends as Vale. Sage Volus is a kickass secret agent, again with a tragedy smouldering in her past, but she’s completely drank the Tribunal’s Kool-Aid and believes their crap wholeheartedly.* I like these characters, but I don’t necessarily want theirs goals to be achieved. The only character I can root for without reservation is Talon Rayne, and even there I have to wonder what use his bosses have for the Gravitum shipment they’re forcing him to hijack. But who knows, other readers may see this same issue as one of the strengths of the book–heaven knows that it can’t be easy to write a character you like even if you don’t want him to win.
The world Bruno has created here is incredibly complex, and I believe he at least is very familiar with its ins and outs. I could have used a little more information at times though. I had serious questions about a number of things as I read. Most of those were eventually answered, but having that happen sooner would have been nice. I would have been significantly more confused than I was if it weren’t for the book’s blurb that set the scene. That said, Bruno did manage to almost completely avoid that dreaded practice of “infodumping.” For some, that’s a cardinal sin. I don’t believe so myself, if it’s done well and manages to be engaging, but enough people have embraced that doctrine that a writer must think twice before employing it. Thankfully, he also managed to avoid the rookie mistake that many a writer has fallen prey to in their efforts to avoid this dreaded practice: characters telling each other things they should already know in an effort to inform the reader. “As you know, Bob, if Doctor Neffario manages to get his hands on the MacGuffin device he’ll end life on the planet Damsellus!” I would have liked to have been told what exactly happened to leave the Earth a barren cinder–it’s somewhat implied that it was a result of mining the core for Gravitum, but if that were the case I think the Tribunal would stop the mining as part of their efforts to make the Earth habitable again. Unless that’s just rhetoric to keep the unwashed masses in line, of course.
Some of the science is wonky, or at least under-explained–you can break the rules of physics, but you should acknowledge doing it and offer some explanation. Some examples: the ease of communication between Vale and ADIM, even across vast distances. Elsewhere in the book it is implied that distance affects the ease and clarity of communication, but ADIM has a communicator with seemingly infinite range built into his head? Seems like that device should be pretty big, if it’s possible at all in this universe. Or maybe not, it just seemed a little inconsistent to me is all. Then there’s the Circuit itself. Everything is described as if it stays stationary relative to each other, but all of those planets are orbiting the sun at different speeds. I assumed the Circuit was a teleportation network like the Stargates in that universe, but it’s revealed towards the end that instead they are space stations that allow the Solar Arks to pick up and drop off people and cargo without ever slowing down from their near-light speed. The routes of those Solar Arks take must be convoluted as all get out and subject to some killer calculations. Again, not insurmountable, but some acknowledgement of the issue and a throwaway line about how it works would be nice.
CONTENT: R-rated language, pervasive but not gratuitous. Some brutal violence. Some fairly strong sexual innuendo, but I don’t recall it becoming very explicit.
*Do I detect the mold of Mara Jade in this character? Methinks I do! That’s okay, if you have to imitate somebody, Timothy Zahn is one of the greats. There are other loans from Star Wars, such as the name Talon (not-Karrde) or the Hands and Executors (though their roles are modified/flipped.)