This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
This week I took a long, loving look at Constellation, by Robert Scanlon.
In this sci-fi action thriller, we follow India “Indy” Jackson, a sassy space pirate who I simply could not not picture as Merida from Brave, only in spaaaaaace. And shit, what the fuck’s wrong with that? Nothing, that’s what. Anyway, we follow her from planet to planet as she attempts to unfold the mystery behind and avenge the death of her father, rescue her brother, put up with her unbearably saucy ex-boyfriend and basically survive in a galaxy that, as I believe young people said back in 2010 or so, be cray. And it’s great!
My immediate thought on opening this book was uggghhh, not first person present tense – but that’s a me problem. It’s fine. Once I got used to it, I found it worked nicely.
The twists and turns and revelations just keep coming. I won’t go into them too far but very little is what it seems and the simple space pirate life of space heists and space deals (and spacetoast, I had a genuine LOL at that) soon turns into a struggle on an interstellar scale as whole civilisations square up and struggle for supremacy. And in the meantime the Blood Empire, headed by the very satisfyingly space elven (dare I say, sci-fae? I do. I do dare. Did I just make up a new sub-genre? A quick google assures me I did not. But fuck it, it’s great) warlord Oberon, is looming on the space horizon.
I really enjoyed the way human and alien cultures and characteristics interwove. The aliens were nicely alien, the humans were nicely human, and the comparative alienness of both was really cleverly handled in the story and dialogue. I would not want to be an alien forced to deal with humans. I was a little puzzled (okay, more than a little) by the idea that if you save a Rykkan’s life, they need to serve you essentially forever or else kill themselves. Aktip saves Indy’s life at least twice before they even get started, and it doesn’t cancel her debt until she damn near dies saving her life for the third or fourth time. Still, it all serves the story and I’ll allow it.
The stakes are always clear and the action and scene-changes are well-outlined. We know what Indy wants, what the Scorpion wants, what Aktip wants, what Sloper wants. I do want to brag a little about figuring out the real deal between Sloper and Indy’s father, at least in the broad strokes, from Sloper’s first appearance … but suffice to say, things are more complicated than we are led to believe and it’s a lot of fun getting from start to finish.
The Constellation itself is great, by no means a McGuffin – and I would even say a character in its own right. I dig that stuff. And like I said, Oberon and the Blood Empire represent a cool and mysterious big bad alluded to just enough to not seem extraneous in this first book, but posing a legitimate and persistent threat. The politics, espionage and corporate / cultural clashes are nicely balanced with character work.
I really did hope Indy and Plexi would end up as a couple, they really seemed to have cute chemistry on the page and you don’t see that very often. But oh well.
This is another story where there wasn’t much sex because sex wasn’t the point. The Rykkan mercenaries have a strong gang-rape and sex trafficking subculture going on but (thankfully) we don’t see much of it. Indy is sexy and confident and manages to get herself into a skin-tight black leather outfit and sci-fi high heels (dare I say, sci-heels? Did I just create another subgenre? I’m not googling it) at least once, but it’s all in service of the plot and didn’t strike me as lascivious (for better or worse). Also since I was picturing her as Merida, her Scottish accent was hot. According to the sex-o-meter this books gets a Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen out of a possible Montero by Lil Nas X.
Not a lot of gore in this sci-fi adventure. Some alien dismemberment and some shooting, but most of the violence was ship-to-ship with a little bit of mobster beating and torture and deprivation of liberty thrown in. But the Blood Empire is coming! Two flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for this one.
This book delivers a lot of quality WTF for your buck. Quite aside from the Blood Empire and the considerable mysteries of Indy’s father and his creations, there’s the entire Rykkan species and their ability to basically read minds but then also apparently be completely vulnerable to an extremely compelling life-debt tradition that I’m frankly stunned more humans haven’t taken advantage of. In this story alone it is a major motivation for both Aktip and the Chief. I initially wondered if there was some kind of elaborate alien joke happening, or if there was more to it like maybe the Rykkan mercenaries were being ‘hired’ by use of this system, and there may still be more here to examine in later books, but … yeah, for something that Indy didn’t even know about at the start of the story, it sure does seem like a huge part of Rykkan culture and you’d think it would be more widely known. Furthermore, their lie-detector abilities are conveniently worked-around at some point and you’d think that would also have been a priority for shitty humans to learn about. Anyway, there was plenty of good WTF in here. I’ll give Constellation a Montero by Lil Nas X out of a possible Kiss Me More by Doja Cat.
My Final Verdict
Four stars for a very cool launch into new series! The SPSFC is doing terrible things to my to-read and to-buy pile, as I read the first books of so many great stories I want to see more of. This one is no exception, and well worth a look.