The Lightless Trilogy
(Click subsequent titles to skip to that part of the review)
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Lightless / 2: Supernova / 3: ?
From one perspective, the title of this novel is appropriate. It is light on background information and character development, and the author seems to think less is more, or at least adequate. This is the fifth advance e-book I have received free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I'm not supposed to quote anything since I was reading an Uncorrected Proof, so I'll have to paraphrase and generalize. If I didn't know better I would think it was self-published, but it's from Del Rey Books, and surely they have proof-readers and editors. Major problems include repetitive phrasings and too much dialog that reiterates things the third-person narrative has already told us. What we don't get is enough information on the technology or the society within which the action unfolds. This is not a stand-alone novel, it will probably be at least a trilogy if not a longer series. Prequels are a common occurrence in publishing today too, so that might happen, and the story needs to fill in a lot of details. Not sure I'll read those extra stories...
The Ananke is a revolutionary new space ship utilizing a small black hole as its energy source and propulsion force. We are repeatedly told it is a very large craft, a military vessel on a secret mission, supposedly heavily armed for defense. Yet there are only three crew members; the captain, a scientist, and a mechanic/computer tech. The top secret mission is poorly explained, and we never see the defensive capability of the ship, in fact it seems it has little defensive capabilities at all, or else they are easily circumvented. Ms. Higgins has a degree in physics, a B.A. from Cornell, although I don't know if she is continuing her studies. Is it possible her Twitter blurb - "I got a degree in physics so I could abuse it by writing science fiction." - is not meant facetiously? No date is given, but it has to be several hundred years into our future. I can't recall another story that has space ships described as having 'relativistic drives' that work within the solar system. The only reason for that is to have various characters coming to and leaving the Ananke in a relatively (pun intended) short period of time.
The governmental entity of the 'System' has an iron grip on all citizens, on Earth as well as its colonies on Luna, Mars, several asteroids and outer satellites. It is a Big Brother type of regime, with constant and almost universal surveillance. No information is given as to how this system was developed or how long it has been in place. Everyone knows they are on cameras and microphones at all times. Many see this as a blessing, a protectiveness, others regard it as a necessary evil. Some see it as nothing but evil and devote their lives to destroying it. Two men infiltrate the Ananke. One is apprehended, the other escapes. Are they part of the terrorist underground, or merely thieves as they claim? How were they even aware of the ship and where it was? A top System official has been tracking them for a long time, convinced they are in a high echelon terrorist cell, and that at least one of them knows the leader personally. She comes aboard to interrogate the detainee. At the same time, mysterious anomalies occur in the ship's computer, leading mechanic Althea Bastet to suspect sabotage. She had personally overseen the construction of both the ship and its computer system, and normally would be able to track down any problems in short order, but this time she is stumped at every turn.
Ms. Higgins may have a future if she can concentrate more on plot and characterization. It wasn't until about the 80% mark on my Kindle file when the narrative tightened up, with the action becoming more intense. Up to that point it had rambled without focus and with too much repetition, particularly in the interrogation scenes. I will admit to being surprised by a couple of late elements, but since they occurred to characters I didn't care about, it was too little too late to make a positive impact. It's not that it's light on plot, since there is quite a bit going on, although none of the elements are explored or developed sufficiently. Along with the mysterious mission of the Ananke (which has yet to be completed), plus the totalitarian System and the terrorists working against it, Higgins also throws in a potential A.I. subplot. Any one of these could have been crafted into an interesting story, but all of them thrown together, with little explanation of their connectedness (if any), deprives the book of the chance at a satisfactory conclusion. That might not matter if any of the characters were sympathetic, but none were for me, so I doubt I'll bother with the inevitable sequels. The System is obviously oppressive and corrupt, but is it any worse than the terrorists who feel it is admirable to kill millions (maybe billions) of innocents to make their point? Since most of the terrorists survived this book I have to assume some will be featured in the next one. I have no interest in following that story, but if it concentrates on Althea and the computer (A.I. or not), I might reconsider..
ADDENDUM: After the above review was written I saw mention of this book on other sites, with quite a few people, including professional reviewers, giving it high marks. Look at the blurbs on Amazon's page for Lightless to see how they differ from my opinion, but if you scroll down and look at some of the 3, 2, & 1 star reviews, you'll see many comments similar to mine. I am willing to admit that the finished novel might have fixed some of the negatives from the ARC mentioned above. Since the follow-up was also offered on NetGalley, I decided to give Ms. Higgins a chance to see if she had improved.
Has she improved? Not really, and there were several times I considered not finishing Supernova, but felt obligated since I had received it free from NetGalley. As with the previous book, it did get better toward the end, this time around the 70% mark. Not good enough to get a positive review, but good enough by that time to finish. Considering it ends on a huge cliffhanger, I might read the conclusion, since there are still many unanswered questions.
Sections do feature Althea Bastet and her efforts to understand and control the apparent A.I. consciousness of Ananke's computer. Unfortunately, too much time is also devoted to Constance Harper and her revolutionary cabal. I'm still not sure if Higgins is presenting Constance as a sympathetic character, but if so I cannot understand it or condone it. Granted, she lived a hard life as a foster child, suffering alongside her foster brother Matthew Gale. She witnessed the System's harsh treatment of its subjects on the outer worlds. As with many other 'freedom fighter' movements, the cause may be just, but that does not forgive the cruelty of the response. It would be like trying to write a sympathetic treatment of any recent terrorist activity. Why anyone is still following her after her deeds at the end of the first book is baffling. Constance exhibits radical paranoia, eventually eliminating (read, murdering in cold blood) several of her collaborators when she fears they object to some of her policies. In the end, she is betrayed by almost everyone, but I'm sure the cliffhanger does not indicate she is executed. Rather than the bright light over the environment dome signally the supernova of the title, I'll bet it is the rocket plume of a craft housing her rescuers, Matthew Gale, along with his close friend Leonitos Ivanov, himself the son of a previously martyred revolutionary.
Constance's story is told in two different parts; her current activity, as well as what she, Matthew, and Leon were doing six months prior to events in the first book. Those events do not include any knowledge they may have had about the Ananke and its mission, or what their infiltration of that ship and what they did to its computer had to do with their revolutionary plans. Nothing is said about the now aborted mission of the Ananke, either by Althea or by the computer. Higgins might think that was a clever way to hook readers into coming back for the third installment, and I'll be impressed if she can tie it all together successfully, but right now I'm thinking it's something she may not have an answer to, and that's frustrating.
The convoluted plot and the questionable protagonists are not the only problems. Just as frustrating is the writing technique. Descriptions of the ships and of the planet and moon habitats are very sketchy, not reflective of someone with a physics degree that has considered the details. There are examples from the first book that I didn't mention previously. The Ananke is supposed to be the pinnacle of engineering, and yet the doors to crew quarters have standard key locks that can be picked similar to current house entry doors. Not electronic or magnetic locks. The doors to Ananke's docking bay are glass rather than reinforced steel or some future composite. Better be very thick glass, since when a ship is entering or leaving, the docking bay is in vacuum. Conditions on Venus are described similarly to what you'd expect from something from the 1930s. Burroughs or Hamilton, even Heinlein, can be forgiven that due to the sparse knowledge of our planetary neighbors at that time, but not today. During a space battle, on Constance's command ship, she is told they are running low on 'ammunition.' Nothing more specific, like photon torpedoes or rail-gun missiles, just ammunition. On the ice world of Europa, a building Constance retreats to is described as if it's an old country home on Earth...complete with outhouse. Lack of detail, or the wrong sort of details, looks like the writer didn't care enough to think about them.
Higgins might have potential if she becomes more detail-oriented. I would also suggest a better editor. Depending on how your taste compares to mine, what you think of other books I've either liked or disliked, will determine whether these are worth your time. I don't recommend them, even though I may read the third when it is released.
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