This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Next up we have The Secret of the Tzaritsa Moon A Nine Star Nebula Mystery Adventure, Book 1, by Charles Litka. And I have no earthly idea why the Amazon link keeps taking me to Spanish Amazon, and if it will do the same for you. Have fun if it does. Think of it like a little Spanish holiday. Unless you live in Spain, in which case it’s just … Wednesday I guess? Alright let’s get on with this.
I have to admit to pre-judging this one a little bit, and being put off by the title and cover before even starting. That’s definitely a me problem, though. I might not have picked up this book under different circumstances, but I’m very glad I did. I’d heard quite a lot of good things about this story, and those things were right. And I was wrong to pre-judge! The cover – which is very nice irrespective of my reaction to it – makes perfect sense in the context of the story, which we’ll get to. Obviously. This is a review. And the titular Tzaritsa Moon is the name of a spaceship, and the similarly titular secrets are an allusion to secrets that are hinted at in our opening aboard said ship.
I was charmed by Rye Rylr and his “yup, that’s me” opening as a toaster repair man. Love a good sci-fi normie-job. How did he end up here? Well, for that we go to our opening, which was a fun enough space action sort of scene, if a bit cut-and-dried mechanics-and-espionage for my tastes. Still well told. Rylr stumbles upon a sabotage job and fixes it, inconveniencing some ne’er-do-wells who would have preferred the Tzaritsa Moon‘s secrets to blow up with the ship – aha, you see? I mentioned the secrets. We’re getting somewhere.
Rylr, something of a trained agent in a fascinatingly framed peacekeeping / intelligence force, escapes the goons (or possibly thugs, and one henchman, the Tall Man) of the “pirate princes” or the “Seven Syndicate” and goes to ground on a bucolic planet just outside the main “Unity” legal framework of interplanetary civilisation. Hence the cover that looks like something you’d find on a book of romance poetry. Anyway he settles in as a (among other things) toaster repair guy, making some friends in a little off-season tourist village, and waits for it to all blow over.
It does not all blow over.
The cosy little witness-protection plotline is blown wide open as the pretty agent with the nice smile who Rylr met on his escape from the Tzaritsa Moon (I’m not kidding, I began to feel a little bad for the author who really seemed to just want to write about a pretty girl smiling over and over … but not in a gross or creepy way, I hasten to add, I think it was genuinely sweet) turns up in his neck of the literal woods and he’s pulled right back into the heisty, organised-crimey intrigue of it all. The enjoyably rural hero-in-hiding narrative switches gears (as smoothly as though its teeth are finely-crafted D-steel) into a secret agent infiltration and action sequence.
It wasn’t until I read about the 11,000-year-old robots, the rebellion and the underground space railroad for kind-of-anti-slaves-if-you-think-about-it, though, that I found myself really fascinated by this story.
I enjoyed a lot of the clever background stuff at work in this one. I liked Rylr’s “spaceer” ignorance about how planets worked, the clever handling of a normalised 200 year lifespan, and some of the career and lifestyle choices it led to. The prevalence of mind wiping and mind probing is interesting and raises a lot of questions about the Unity and this civilisation in general, that I expect will be fleshed out in subsequent mysteries.
All in all this was a fun little tale of intrigue, espionage, crime syndicates and secret agents, with the obligatory sci-fi armoury / trove of lost tech. I think “lift” was maybe a bit overused as a multifaceted slang term, but on the other hand I wholeheartedly approve of “Neb” as a general curse / blasphemy. Yes sir, a very cute story!
There wasn’t really any sex to be had here. All things considered it was a completely and endearingly innocent slow burn romance and sex wasn’t the point. That said, our main protagonist was clearly (and adorably) besotted and the slow burn romance will surely continue as the Nine Star Nebula Mystery Adventures do. A pirate prince out of a possible space Tortuga on the ol’ sex-o-meter for this one.
Again, this was an entirely innocent outing. We were treated to some gunfights. The ammo is mostly set on stun. The greatest violence at play here is whatever happens to someone’s mind when they get wiped and probed and stuff, which – I’m not saying it’s not worrying, but it’s not explained in detail and it’s not gore, is it? Half a quivering flesh-gobbet out of a possible five.
I was delighted at the little glimpses of a rich, wild ecosystem of WTF going on under the surface here. The robots, the mind probes, the world building in general, it was all really nice and I want to know more. Unity and the non-Unity worlds … the whole thing makes for an interesting dynamic and adds depth to a well-crafted and simple action adventure. It wasn’t fully psychedelic, but it was good solid sci-fi WTF and I give it a Witness out of a possible Planet of the Amish from Futurama.
My Final Verdict
What a fun story. I recommend it! Let’s go with three and a half stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale. But okay, fine, just because I loved the snarky robots so much, I will bump it to four stars.