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Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Dakota Merrick Series: "Stealing Light and Nova War" by Gary Gibson (reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Gary Gibson Website
Order "Stealing Light" HERE
Order "Nova War" HERE
Read Walker of Worlds Review of "Nova War"
Read FBC and Walker of Worlds Interview with Gary Gibson

Scottish sf writer Gary Gibson burst onto the scene in 2004 with a very ambitious debut Angel Stations which made me a big time fan. While having some debut flaws like lack of balance and even too much ambition for the relatively limited page count, Angel Stations is not your "average" debut, but a very complex and mature novel that pays several close readings.

His second novel, Against Gravity, quite different in tone and setting was much tighter and imho is a class above the later, similar themed but better known Black Man/Thirteen by RK Morgan. I will do a dual review of these two standalone novels sometime this fall.

Turning his hand to "popular" new space opera on a galactic canvas and with all the
associated paraphernalia, Mr. Gibson started the Dakota Merrick series of which Stealing Light (pub 2007) was my top sf novel of the year, while volume 2 Nova War will be most likely a co-#1 sf novel for 2009. In the following I will discuss both books with some inevitable spoilers for Stealing Light though I will try to keep such at a minimum.

For seasoned Gary Gibson readers, Mark Chitty has written a great comprehensive review of Nova War which is linked above, but my goal here is to introduce our readers to the work of Gary Gibson and show why it is excellent, addictive and deserves to be as widely known as possible.

OVERVIEW: In a Galaxy dominated by a mercantile fish-like species, The Shoal, which seems to be the only one knowing the secret of ftl, humanity is a client species splintered in various ideological and political entities that generally come under the umbrella of the "Consortium", which started as a trade alliance and became the de facto governing body.

Since all interstellar travel takes place on Shoal starships, The Consortium has the power to dictate to the various human worlds and even has a small standing army for emergency interventions. Despite strict clauses prohibiting humanity from even trying to find out the secret of ftl, "everyone" tries though with a distinct lack of success so far.

The Shoal offered humanity the stars under some conditions, none that onerous except the "evacuation clause" which allows the Shoal to claim any human colony within its first several decades and require humans to evacuate it. Never invoked as it happens, it is regarded as a quirk of the enigmatic Shoal until...

The Shoal travel generally in huge ftl "Coreships" that are more like mini-planetoids than anything else; they encompass habitats for each client species with strict limits on inter-species communication; outside of that, almost anything goes at least short of nuclear war; since the Coreships are the one place where the Consortium influence is the most limited - after all, people living on Coreships already travel ftl, the Consortium main power being exactly the "official" body dealing with the Shoal - the human habitats there are occasionally wrecked by war between various factions and the Shoal do not intervene unless something threatens the safety of the ship or their secrets.

While the Coreships travel everywhere, humanity is constrained to some sphere around Earth - quite big in light year volume and with tons of planets that can be opened to explorations - so when Coreships carrying humans venture beyond those limits, the human habitat is sealed from the exterior.

Of the human fringe groups the most important for the story so far are The Freehold - the Heinleinian ideal society of "citizen = soldier" and the Uchidans which are a Hubbardian-like cult that can fulfill their promise of "living every moment with God" with their brain implants. The obnoxious, militaristic mindset of the Freehold and the creepiness of the Uchidans made them pariahs in human space and each culture got settled on some out of the way dust-balls to pursue their "utopias" in peace until The Shoal invoked the "evacuation clause" on the Uchidans planet and the Consortium settled them on another continent on the sparsely populated Freehold planet.

As expected Freehold and the Uchidans got along like fire and grass, though surprisingly the Uchidans turned out to be the "fire" pushing the Freehold to the brink in various wars; even the disastrous Consortium armed intervention on the Freehold side, where Dakota Merrick first appears and becomes an accused - though acquitted under some stringent conditions that turn her into an outcast- war criminal did not help and the Freeholders are more and more desperate when Stealing Light starts.

Another very important species are the Bandati, a flying humanoid bat-like one, which is much older than humanity at least as space travel goes and it has been a Shoal client for a long time.

The famous and presumed extinct Magi are a mythical species that somehow are involved both with the secret of ftl and with the reason of why ftl has to remain secret...

In Stealing Light we meet our main characters: Dakota Merrick as an illegal "machine head" who captains a small but highly efficient (in system, non-ftl of course) starship Piri Reis which provides everything for her - home, companionship, way of living; sadly she is quite indebted to various shady operators for the ship, so she has to take jobs that are dangerous in more ways than she realizes; circumstances dictate that she will have to work for the paranoid Freeholdians, under an assumed name since after all she - however unwittingly - killed quite a few of them in the incident mentioned above. In the process she makes some powerful enemies in shady financier and wheeler dealer Bourdain and his terrifying hit man Hugo Moss.

Julian Corso is from a moderate Freehold party and when his powerful family is disgraced, only his skill with Magi technology and a dangerous Freehold secret keep him alive.

Behind the scenes Trader (in-Faecal-Matters-of-Animals) as he half jokingly, half insultingly calls himself, (in)famous Shoal secret agent/manipulator plays the puppeteer to our unwitting heroes...

Stealing Light follows mostly Dakota on her journey and later widens a bit its focus to the larger picture.

In Nova War the big picture intrudes big time and the novel is a true wide-screen space opera with many characters, multiple threads and panoramic action. While Dakota plays a very important role, her "screen time" is considerably lower than the 90% or so from the first book, while Julian, Trader, Hugo Moss and several Bandati characters get a lot of page count. There are new alien races, new secrets, lots of starships and the body count raises considerably. The inventiveness and sense of wonder are raised a notch and the novel is a page turner you do not want to put down.

After the lengthy overview above, I want to discuss what makes the series so good. First of course is the sense of wonder - you love space opera, well it does not get any better than the Dakota Merrick series; it has everything you want from mysterious artifacts and races, to deadly, even galactic shattering secrets, to various alien spaces that go beyond the "costume aliens" ones that sadly plague many attempts at space opera, and are developed with their unique characteristics and culture that is rational but non-human, to battles of all kinds, mind-control and more.

The characters are also "larger than life" as befits the genre, dominating the story from the pages of the novels, most notably Dakota of course, but Trader and later Hugo Moss , while the other main hero, Julian Corso grows too as the series goes.

However when all is said, it is still Dakota Merrick' series and a lot of the reader's perception will depend on how you find her. Joining the pantheon of "the fate on Galaxy on her shoulders" heroes/villains like PF Hamilton Joshua Calvert and Quinn Dexter or IM Banks' Bora Horza and Cheradenine Zakalwe, Dakota is the linchpin of the series and her trajectory from curious trainee, to implant pilot, to outcast "machine head" to, well you gotta read Nova War and find out what.. is fascinating and the conclusion of the trilogy "Empire of Light" should be a cracker.

The writing is very clear and has narrative power; it moves smoothly between the several distinct pov's in Nova War and there is no abrupt pov jumping or scene changing. I actually liked a lot the ability of Gary Gibson to move between a more intimate "personal" tale - even though on a Galactic scene - in Stealing Light and the wider canvas of Nova War and Empire of Light will be very interesting to read for this aspect too.

The other thing I noticed is the focus on keeping the story clear and to the point since if Angel Stations had one major problem, it was precisely the cramming of too much into too little space, while Against Gravity is also quite a dense book in its own; while he started almost as a writer of "literary sf" Gary Gibson moved firmly to the more popular side of the spectrum with this series showing adaptability and diversity and these are again traits I appreciate since I get quickly bored by "too much of the same".

And to add to this, Gary Gibson's take on the space opera tropes and the numerous references to the genre's famous or infamous novels - you can read more in the interview linked above about specifics - are just on the mark in my opinion, adding to the many reasons to really love these books.

In conclusion, if you want to try "serious" new space opera and you are afraid of getting into door-stopper volumes or mammoth series, Gary Gibson's Dakota Merrick is a perfectly good place to start being accessible and relatively short as the sub-genre goes, while providing everything you want from it; for veteran space opera readers like myself the books are in the top class of the field alongside PF Hamilton or Iain M. Banks.


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