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.
Next on our semi-finals slate is Zero Day Threat, Book 1 of the Ungovernable series, by R. M. Olson.
After a little puzzlement, I have to conclude that the title of the book makes sense and is actually memorably clever, since a zero day threat (as explained to my ignorant arse at the front of the book) is a threat that exploits a previously-unknown weakness in a system. Which is a fancy way to frame a heist that does quite a lot of that. And while I wasn’t super-gripped by the initial hook here, I would urge readers to give it a chance because this one’ll sneak up on you.
Our classic mixed bag of colourful characters with haunted pasts and a big old buttload of baggage full of secrets are assembled by a mysterious puppeteer, Masha, to pull off a caper. The caper in question? The legendary warship The Ungovernable, or at least the fancy schmancy technology thereof. The shifting points of view in the story are done really nicely, each character having a distinct voice of their own and a compelling story. I make light of the baggage and the secrets, but that sort of stuff is the bread and butter of the motley crew space heist found family subgenre and Olson does it well.
The main protagonist, or at least the one we meet first, is the sassy and super-skilled Jez. A shady pilot who’s just lost her ship and is in debt to a mobster as a result, Jez has hit rock bottom and is ripe for recruitment into a shenanigan or two. Also involved in the heist are a guy who may or may not have an unforeseen and everything-changing connection to the heistee, to say nothing of the dude apparently responsible for Jez losing her ship in the first place, as well as a woman out for revenge (or specifically already a criminal for achieving the revenge) for the murder of her wife and son … and the bloke who [okay I’ll redact the spoilers on this].
It is, as you may imagine, a recipe for tension and excitement and twists, and one has to wonder how much the mysterious Masha really knows – and what her end game is. Because it sure doesn’t seem to be anything as simple as pulling off this extremely difficult and dangerous heist, let me tell you.
While elements of this story felt a teensy little bit contrived and overblown (indeed, it reminded me a little of NBC’s The Blacklist, just without a series of delightful Reddington anecdotes, but that may have just been the fact that the head of the enterprise was named Masha), that’s part of the charm of the whole thing and it was really quite enjoyable (kind of like NBC’s The Blacklist, at least the early seasons thereof before it just got too silly, but everyone has their own threshold for “too silly” and this is not a review of NBC’s The Blacklist). The interlocking of skill sets and the manipulation of secrets is top-notch and nothing is what it seems in this high-stakes action adventure. Should I add a “swashbuckling” in there? Damn it, you only live once. I’m doing it. This high-swashbuckling-stakes action adventure. That’s not quite right but we’re already moving on.
I greatly enjoyed the brief but very colourful take on the “jungle planet where everything wants to kill you” trope, and while some of the heist elements and challenges and methods of defeating said challenges were a bit questionable, overall I loved it. I will say that the scene where a criminal arms dealer minion was showing Lev around and Ysbel was planting explosives, that was totally sus and the minion really wasn’t on the ball. But not for nothing is this story billed as an Ocean’s Eleven adventure in space!
There’s a lot of flirting and sass going on here, and a certain amount of cautious pairing up towards the end, but no sex to speak of. This is first and foremost a crew-assembly story where our heroes find their dysfunctional new family and learn to work together despite being lone wolves and allathat. No time to boink the packmates. Let’s give Zero Day Threat an ugly Christmas sweater out of a possible Wolf Shirt™.
We are treated to a high-stakes game of robbers ‘n’ robbers (and also some cops are around), with plenty lot of threats and descriptions of things, but no real here-and-now gore. The arguably worst atrocity in the story was – well I won’t spoil it, but read to the end on that one. We have a bit of a body-count and the alien jungle had some gross stuff in it, but all in all it was more action adventure than action violence. And that fits, given what the story is. The gore-o-meter gives us one flesh-gobbet out of a possible five, and I can’t argue with that.
Well, Zero Day Threat doesn’t leave us with much WTF to sit in and splash happily either. What you see is what you get, aside from the obligatory twists in the plot – and they don’t count as true pure-grade WTF. The Ungovernable itself, the ship, was very neat – I wasn’t quite certain why it was so amazing and who the genius was who made it, even though it was explained in the story it left me sort of baffled. It could have been more of a thing, making that inventor into an unseen character. Still, I’m sure there is more to learn about the strange ship and its origins and abilities in later books, so that’s kicked a little spark of responsiveness out of the WTF-o-meter. We’re still only registering an Ocean’s Two and a Half starring Charlie Sheen out of a possible Ocean’s Fourteen: A Hunka Hunka Burning Oceans. This is a very low-scoring affair on all the meters, but still wound up being a good story. Who knew?
My Final Verdict
An enjoyable page-turning space heist with some great characters and gorgeous scenery, well deserving of an SPSFC semi-finalist placing. Three stars!
 Figurative puppeteer. Which is a mild shame since an actual puppeteer would make a hilarious and wonderfully surreal ringleader for this thing, but I’ll let it pass. Still, an idea for the future there?