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.
We have reached the end of the first SPSFC, and all that remains after this is to announce the winner. Since that was never really my interest in this, however, I’m mainly excited to be handing in my final review before we get to the grand final. And that review is for Captain Wu: A Space Opera Adventure, Starship Nameless Book 1, by Patrice Fitzgerald and Jack Lyster.
Captain Wu was a space opera adventure just like it says on the packet, an action-packed and fun-character-filled tale of a plucky crew of smugglers just trying to make ends meet at the raggedy edge of the law in a crazy mixed-up cosmos. When a delivery goes bad and the crew of the ‘Nameless’ find themselves in possession of a relic sought after by shady characters willing to kill all witnesses, Captain Wu – a hero as resourceful as she is eponymous – has to do what it takes to keep her family safe. Her found family, that is, and her biological family as well. Although she was also kind of found, because – look we’re getting into the weeds here, let’s move this rough ol’ beast along towards Bethlehem already.
I was immediately charmed by the main protagonist and I loved the different planets the Nameless visited. This story has some gorgeous worldbuilding, merging the grimy geopolitical functionality of Firefly with the science-fantasy interstellar mechanics of the Stargate franchise to good effect.
Was it too derivative? I don’t think so … although Rev’s sister, gifted and disappeared-off to some Commonwealth academy for possible use in later books, was a tad on the nose. To say nothing of Patience the owner of Whitefall, I mean Tell the owner of Dust. But hey. When you have a construction dynamic that puts resource scarcity and legal outsidering very much centre-table, you’re gonna end up with a Serenity-type shipboard business model and a system of planets not unlike the Verse, and sci-fi nerds are going to recognise it, and that’s just unavoidable. Best thing you can do is downplay the parallels as much as possible, and Captain Wu managed that just fine.
And if you can’t downplay them, then (“Dune was taken”) lampshade them. That also works.
Yeah, I was charmed by Wu from the start. I don’t know if her whole side-schtick as an underground death cage fighting contestant made a lot of sense, her tough badassery and emotional issues could have been illustrated in some other way but by all means, let’s have a fucking underground death cage fight thing. Why not? I was also amused at the very outset by her self-identifying as a terrible shot with a gun (this despite her sassy gun-toting pose on the cover) and was expecting it to be more of a running / significant element in the story, but it wasn’t really brought up again. I consider that a squandered opportunity.
From the fun action of the introductory hook, the excitement doesn’t let up and we’re led on a very enjoyable page-turning adventure through space as the crew of the Nameless try to figure out why they’re being shot at and chased. Each character is distinct and intriguing in their own way, from the spunky hacker-type Lilly to the phlegmatic and delightfully behaviourally-atypical xeno Six, and I felt very close to them all by the end of the story. That’s a rare thing, and deserves recognition.
I don’t know if I buy the premise of the Commonwealth having a monopoly on energy. Of course it would be super easy to get bogged down in the mechanics and the socioeconomics of it all and the authors did a good job here of walking that line between “here’s how the galaxy works” and “Commonwealth, control, modes of, see Appendices C – H”. I am a fan of the info-dump so I wouldn’t have minded the latter approach, but I am aware that I’m in a minority there. It’s just … planets and suns have so many different ways of releasing energy and a space-age civilisation would be even better at harnessing it than we are, so how are batteries and a single charger-planet a viable foundation for an interstellar monopoly? I was baffled by this almost to the point of being bumped out of the story. It really needed to be something more esoteric, but – like they said – Dune was already taken so…
All in all this was a well-constructed and interesting-to-read story and setting, and I definitely want to know more. Let’s take a look at what the meters have to say.
Sex is referred to a few times in the story but it’s not really integral. Wu is appropriately horny, as befits a late-middle-aged bisexual space buccaneer who gets in underground death cage fights to let off steam. The sex-o-meter therefore awards Captain Wu a pon farr that turns out to be a sweaty false alarm due to the radiation from a nearby nebula out of a possible death by snu snu.
Plenty of hand-to-hand fights and shoot-outs and stuff, and a bit of pretty harrowing human-on-xeno abuse, but nothing particularly bloody or gutsy or splattered-offal-all-over-cockpitty here. I’d read this to my kids (11 and 8). Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
The squid xenos were cool, their whole characterisation and mode of speech was chilling. That’s not so much a WTF as just me not knowing where else to mention it – but their origins, and their endgame, and the whole story of the masters and the book that is central to this story? That is some excellent WTF right there. I was left uncertain about whether the Commonwealth were just another hand of the masters. They’re not the masters themselves, right? Please? Anyway it ended on a cliffhanger with not many answers to any of the big questions set up throughout the narrative, so there you go. For WTF, Captain Wu gets a Dejarik out of a possible Fruity Oaty Bars! – go ahead and google those. It’s fine.
My Final Verdict
I really enjoyed this book, and although I’d be tempted to play a bit more with a longer gradient of scores, the Amazon / Goodreads scale is what we have so let’s give it four stars and leave it at that. Thanks Fitzgerald and Lyster for a grand read!
 Cap’n Wu is a bisexual grandmother of Asian descent, which checks a whole lot of boxes even if the authors … don’t so much? I remain uncertain how to approach this sort of thing because I love seeing the rich tapestry of human identity and cultural markers in fiction. We are a fascinating species of apes, no two ways about it. Get us away from the Flash Gordon (or shit, even the Malcolm Reynolds) space hero! And if a bisexual grandmother of Asian descent writes a sci-fi book, please let me know so I can read the shit out of it.
But still, and not to make a whole second review about this, the question of who “gets to” create voices like this in fiction is increasingly a thorny one. You’ll naturally want to hear this cishet white male opinion (I am even approaching middle age, and have a large grey beard) on this, so it’s this: I think it’s very, very important to have characters and backgrounds like this in the stories we tell each other. Normalise the gay protagonist, the Somali-descended space farmboy, the badass lady swashbuckler, the transmasc inventor of a gun that turns people into robots (but with a 0.1% chance of glitching and turning them into vessels for an eldritch horror from the underside of the universe)! I also think it’s very, very important that people in the real world who actually live these traits get their place at the table. They should write, and be read, and be celebrated.
Is it up to women to create more female characters? Is it up to LGBT+ authors to write more LGBT+ heroes? Is it up to artists of colour to bring people of colour into any and every creative space they can? Sure. It’s up to them. Can people like me help in any way? I sure hope so. We can help by buying, reading, spreading awareness and positivity and acceptance in what is still (trust me, it still is) a very closed series of circles and locked doors.
Can we also help by working more diverse identities into our own writing? Again, I hope so. If we can all only tell stories about and within our own sociocultural contexts, it’s going to be a lose-lose situation for everyone. But at the same time, white cishet blokes need to be aware that the white cishet bloke sociocultural context is still damn near a worldwide universal, and we’re not going to change that by shouting louder. We’re only going to change it by listening to the ones our forebears very effectively silenced. And that’s a highly uncomfortable prospect for some people. But shit, I’ve gone and written a whole second review about this even though I said I wasn’t going to.
 Farmboys, swashbucklers, gun-makers … you know.