Ryler Mallivan expects mandatory military refresher to be a short break in his life as the owner of a space freighter. However, when his training ship is caught in the middle of interstellar war, he finds himself leading a ragtag group of various races. To make matters worse, the eight-year-old alien he saved believes she must repay the life debt; and her people agree. At first, he doesn’t care about the politics, but—when someone attempts to make sure there aren’t any witnesses to the initial attack—he realises the politics cares about him.
As with many space operas, the novel is set in a galaxy peopled by several races in a shaky political peace. However, unlike many, there is more than one faction of humanity, each viewing the other as an equal threat to the aliens. This hiving off of some humans following the discovery of interstellar travel is echoed by hints of the same division within another of the races, mitigating the human exceptionalism sometimes present in space opera.
While the other races fall into the interesting rather than rigorously likely, both in biology and society, Andrews provides greater depth and nuance to races as their page time increases; thus, they feel plausible within the context of interstellar warping.
Politics within and between the races similarly feels plausible within the context of the universe, with sufficient similarities to human politics to be accessible and sufficient differences to avoid the book seeming a thinly veiled manifesto or allegory.
The science sits at the same level: there are in-world perspectives and explanations which create a sense the characters exist within a universe subject to natural laws, but the underlying rigour is provided off-page rather than by descriptions of hard science.
Beginning as an “ordinary person trying to survive the day” narrative, the plot escalates sharply as Ryler is pulled into the events behind the initial attack. While each step is not unrealistic, readers who prefer gritty narratives to heroic tales might find the arc from nobody to galactic significance a little too reliant on fortune.
Ryler is a well-crafted protagonist. Like many “peasant to saviour in space” tales he experiences self-doubt over both his capabilities and goals; however, unlike many of those, he isn’t blessed with hidden brilliance so presents as someone genuinely struggling to do their best. This adds a sense of realism to the escalating plot.
For the most part, the crew of humans and aliens he gathers around himself are similarly complex individuals both aided and limited by their prior histories. However, readers particularly interested in agency might find one character’s development has echoes of deus ex machina.
Overall, I enjoyed this novel. I recommend it to readers seeking fast-paced space opera with both politics and action.
I received a free copy with a request for fair review.