I originally reviewed Song of Scarabaeus over at Jawas Read, Too! for her Book Uno feature a couple of months ago. The format of this review is a bit different from my usual reviews since it actually has a numerical rating.
This book first appeared on my radar when Linnea Sinclair recommended it on her yahoo group: ” Far-far future Earth SF with terraforming, high-tech, rebellions, pirates, a nice romantic subplot. I’d classify it as RSF and if you like Aguirre’s GRIMSPACE, you’ll love this”. Yep, sounded right up my alley. Good reviews started coming in and I’d been feeling the pull of this book for a while.When Erika threw down the gauntlet for Book Uno she gave me the challenge of finding a book with a female protagonist because she read and reviewed Jay Lake’s Green, which had a female protagonist, for the last Book Uno review. I think this book not only has a female protagonist (and a lovely one at that), but look at the cover! It’s GREEN. That’s right, I am a genius at Book Uno.
The Premise: Edie Sha’nim is a biocyph who can interface with machines mentally. Her training is primarily for terraforming worlds for human habitation, but she’s unhappy in her current situation, which is akin to being in an indentured position under the Crib Empire. Her next assignment is one she is not thrilled by (although it will be a coup for her ambitious sponsor), so she drags her feet by taking a lowly temporary assignment as op-teck in maintenance. Unfortunately, that’s when Edie is kidnapped by a group of pirates who steal terraforming seeds for Fringe worlds that can’t afford the Crib’s high prices for maintaining the Fringe worlds’ environments. Edie is shackled via a wet-teck leash to Finn, an escaped convict with a dark personality and a past as a Fringe freedom fighter.
My Thoughts: From the beginning, the book immerses the reader in Edie’s universe. Unknown terminology is casually tossed into the narrative and a little brainpower is needed at first, but it gets easier as the book goes along. It helps that the story is full of action from the get go with Edie’s kidnapping, and it continues to stay compelling once Edie is captured. First, she’s shackled with Finn, an escaped con with a chip in his head that’s been modified so that if he is too far away from Edie, his head explodes. This makes Finn Edie’s involuntary bodyguard, and awkward relationship which is complicated by Edie having the power to send a crippling jolt to his system via his chip.
Finn and Edie are brought onto the Hoi Polloi, whose crew consists of Haller, the executive officer, Cat Lancer, the navpilot, Zeke, the op-teck, and Captain Rackham, a cook, and two engineers. Although the mercenaries say they have altruistic goals to help Fringe planets, money is obviously part of it. Not to mention that the crew has already broken laws and wrecked havoc to capture Edie. I think that the secondary characters were very subtly set up. At first there are quick impressions of each of them from Edie’s point of view, and then as the book continues, their actions give us more clues as to who they are. It’s very realistic and done nicely. The two I noticed most were Cat and Zeke, who try to be friendly, but they’ve also shown some qualities which put their trustworthiness into question. Trying to figure out how to escape when the allies are slim is a very precarious situation for Edie and Finn, who don’t even know if they can trust one another.
I liked that Finn and Edie are strangers and treat each other as such. This is not one of those books where sparks fly and there’s lust at first sight. I know the cover looks quite romantic, and I’m going to talk about both characters because they’re the protagonists, but let me assure you that the romance is pretty understated.
Finn has just spent years as a convict – treated as a “serf” and less than human, controlled via his chip. Now, in an attempt to get free, he’s found himself in another form of slavery. And while Edie’s morals maker her value human life, Finn is a much, much harder person because of his experiences. As a serf, he’s seen how people treat his kind, and whether he decides that Edie is cut from the same cloth as everyone else is in question for much of the book. If he didn’t need Edie to live, he’d be a lot more dangerous to her, and of the two characters, we’re in Edie’s head, not in his. His actions are truly hard to read and unpredictable, and I liked that. He’s not a formulaic hero by any means.
Edie, on the other hand, is a sympathetic character with some unique problems because of who she is. She needs an implant of neuroxin to stay alive and as a biocyph she’s a target of violent environmentalists who want to stop planets from being terraformed. And she’s seen as a very valuable tool by others, so her life never seems to be fully her own. You could say that she’s used to being unique and dealing with the focus this brings. She’s not what I would call “kick-ass” (she’s had bodyguards to protect her) and she’s a good person even to those who may not deserve it, but she’s not spineless, and knows how to defend herself. Her talents are of course more mental, being a biocyph. Creasy is seamless in referring to Edie’s back story and her job without it feeling like an information dump. How Edie joined the Crib and her first terraforming mission are brought up is they affect her current situation or as brief flashbacks, italicized to separate them from the main storyline. Her biocyph skill is explained on the fly as Edie utilizes it.
The biocyph, and the other -cyph type technology involves people interfacing with machines via chips in their brains and very specific training. The actual interface is described very nicely in the book in an artistic interpretation which I would compare to how the movie Hackers interpreted coding visually. I don’t think you could relate it with coding today, but I still liked the imagery used in explaining it. This creativity is everywhere in the world building from the description of the space ship to the planets that it flies to. I particularly loved the menacing plant life on Scarabaeus, which is subtly suggested on the cover (it looks like there’s a tree on the cover, but that’s really a wall between two windows looking into space).
The comparison to Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace is one that I understand. Grimspace was about a heroine with a unique ability as a jumper but after a horrific accident, she is confined by her government until the hero busts her out. There are a lot of imperfect characters, lots of action and it’s a rather gritty beginning to a space adventure series. Song of Scarabaeus may not share its plot or characters, but the spirit is similar. This book has dark parts, but I didn’t think it was quite as dark, and Edie is a more likable character than Jax initially is, but the ragtag group of mercenary space pirates, high-tech ability with a price, and unpredictable problems make this a book I’d recommend for fans of Aguirre’s fantastic series.
Overall: The more I think about this book, the more I liked it. I think that the writing was very thoughtfully done. It’s got action and a dangerous universe. it’s got space pirates. It’s got well written world building and a suspenseful plot. And it’s got a believable relationship that starts off between two 3-dimensional characters that are utter strangers. I’m not really sure what more I could want in a story. Highly recommended, particularly for Ann Aguirre fans. I’m eagerly awaiting the continuation – Children of Scarabaeus, which comes out March, 2011.
For the purpose of Jawas Read, Too!‘s rating system, I’d give this one an 9.