Dz, an engineer on a salvage vessel with her found family crew, who come across a mysterious wreck that changes everything. Despite this being a well-loved and well-trodden trope, Elizabeth Bear brings her own unique perspective – one that you well warned for after going three poems as the epigraphs for this novel.
Compared to other similar space opera’s with a similar set-up, one of the aspects that makes it different is how often the external action takes a backside to the internal landscape of the main character, as she grapples with her past, her identity, and her own beliefs. The struggle with her beliefs is the theme for the whole story, going from friendly arguments between the ship’s AI and the pilot all the way a fight between her and one grumpy space pirate.
These beliefs the story is grappling is how we should conduct ourselves between social responsibility and independence. The independence side is shown in antagonist Captain Farweather – who one can’t help but see her as a dark reflection of the freewheeling and swashbuckling spire pirates from odler works. (Think a way more sociopathic female Captain Harlock).
But this novel isn’t just philosophical debates – there is a tense thriller, one that our heroes are ill-prepared to survive. This plot allows the book to show its strengths – namely the world-building. With a deft hand, Elizabeth Bear creates aliens as diverse as giant space sea horses to tall but fragile praying mantises with way too many legs. (But very polite manners). They are likeable and appealing without losing their alien essence. The same can be said for Singer, the AI of the salvage ship, whose only unique perspective and frustrations in living with a world with slow humans are shown. Also, the technology of mind modifications through a device called a fox is a well-realized trajectory of our present – a present in which “Hacking our own brains” in variety of new and creative ways are probably trending on your social media right now.
Not to say that the story is perfect. Haimay Dz’s tone is very dry and risks falling into removed and too formal if it wasn’t for a well-developed sense of humor. But it doesn’t help with the issue of the novel repeating itself – especially in the early philosophical debates, with points repeated again and again – like a teacher patiently lecturing to a class prone to falling asleep. There is also an issue with some worldbuilding tidbits brought up again and again – like the genetic engineering of Connla, her pilot. Also, the time system somehow suffers from being both too alien and too familiar at the same time. An effect that often left me temporally confused on the passage of time.
You are looking for a fast-paced action thriller of a space opera, this book isn’t for you. If you are looking for a meditative read that takes some time to digest, this is the book for you. I for one is waiting for the next world, to see more of the world expand.