The Premise: Mikhail Volkov is a clone of Peter the Great and heir apparent to the great Novaya Rus Empire. He’s captain of the warship the Svobada, and helping the United Colonies fight off the alien Nefarim when it’s requested that he investigate the sudden appearance of a warp drive from the long lost Fenrir. With the drive being covered in coral and sea life, it’s apparently come from some body of water, but according to it’s data, it’s last jump was a misjump to location zero. Mikhail accepts the mission, jumps to the same location and crashes. His adopted brother Turk becomes separated from him in a world where they are surrounded by aliens and humans in the same situation and who never escaped.
My Thoughts: Wen Spencer is one of those authors with sometimes really complex ideas. I find I have to read about 100 pages in before what the characters are talking about begin to make sense. It’s always worth my patience, because once I get it, it’s smooth reading. In this case I had a hard time first understanding the world of the Sargasso Sea which Turk and Mikhail find themselves, and I had to understand what a Red was. To help others this is what I understood:
- A Red: is an “adapted” human. Basically, human genes were manipulated to create a super soldier who is faster, stronger and better at surviving harsh conditions, but they were also taught to obey and treated as second class citizens, like animals. Usually they are grown in batches and raised in a creche where they all undergo some behavioral imprinting.
- The Sargasso Sea: A world where spaceships disappear into when they misjump. Most of it is covered in water, gravity follows strange rules, and no one can figure out how to get out. To me it sounded like the inside of a very large egg, but don’t ask me where the sun is, I still don’t know.
After I got those two concepts, I felt comfortable enough with the world and what was going on, but there are still some complex ideas going on in here about communication and behavior and faith. There’s also a LOT of ideas from japanese culture (Tinker also had this). In some ways it’s refreshing to be expected to be able to follow these ideas, but it meant I couldn’t read this book when I was really tired, my brain just wouldn’t work. Anyway, the world building was awesome – boats, floating islands, minotaurs, cannibals, the list goes on, I really can’t describe it. I think if you’ve read Tinker maybe you’d see what I mean, it can get very out there in a good way.
Wen Spencer writes well rounded, three dimensional characters too. Turk and Mikhail are leaders and quick thinkers but they have fears and problems. Mikhail suffers from depression, and Turk has issues with being a Red. Having a clone and a super-soldier as adopted brothers was an interesting twist on common science fiction tropes, plus we get to see the family dynamics, which seems to be a Wen Spencer trademark (see A Brother’s Price). There are Turk and Mikhail, and then there are the Baileys, who have a huge extended and remarkable family. Their familial bonds felt realistic – you know what the pecking order is, who is better than this than who, what they always fight over, how siblings could easily guess their siblings reactions and thoughts. It was very well done. Of course comparing the Baileys and the Volkovs, there are some big differences in upbringing which had a big part in the book. The big difference seems to be Turk’s status as a Red, and being treated like an animal in normal space. He can “fur up” and there’s a contingent of people who call themselves “cat fanciers” and get off on the idea of sex with Reds. This brings a whole level of effed up to his psyche.
There is a nice romance going on here between Turk and one of the Baileys. Near the beginning of the book when Turk was separated from his brother, the narrative would go back and forth between Turk and Mikhail. I just wanted to skip ahead to all the parts with Turk (and the romance), and ignore Mikhail. Thankfully the narrative stopped bouncing back and forth before I become really impatient, and by then I’d become equally interested in both their stories.
The romance had some interesting problems on the way to the couple’s HEA – race is one, having to choose between love or the world you came from is another. The way these problems were resolved were interesting, though one resolution felt a little implied and off screen. In some ways a lot of the romance is also off-screen, with very key scenes shown or mentioned to the reader. Which means it felt like I had missed something because the book would sometimes fast forward between the couple’s relationship milestones. This was OK, but I did crave for a little more.
Overall: I really liked this one. At almost 500 pages long, it’s a clunker, but it’s a standalone with well written characters, and I thought it was worth the read. Recommend this one to space opera fans and fans of science fiction romance (although I’d say the romance is a secondary plot), with the warning that there’s some complex plotting and ideas going on, but if you’re willing to deal with a little thinking, you’ll be rewarded.