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Friday, July 8, 2022

August Kitko and the Mechas from Space (The Starmetal Symphony, Movement #1) by Alex White (Reviewed by Daniel P. Haeusser)

 


Order Alex Kitko and the Mechas from Space HERE
 
OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Alex White was born in Mississippi and has lived most of their life in the American South. Alex is the author of the Starmetal Symphony Trilogy and The Salvagers Trilogy; as well as official novels for Alien (The Cold Forge, Into Charybdis) and Star Trek (Deep Space Nine: Revenant). They enjoy music composition, calligraphy and challenging, subversive fiction.
 
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: When an army of giant robot AIs threatens to devastate Earth, a virtuoso pianist becomes humanity’s last hope in this bold, lightning-paced, technicolor space opera series from the author of A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.
 
Jazz pianist Gus Kitko expected to spend his final moments on Earth playing piano at the greatest goodbye party of all time, and maybe kissing rockstar Ardent Violet, before the last of humanity is wiped out forever by the Vanguards – ultra-powerful robots from the dark heart of space, hell-bent on destroying humanity for reasons none can divine.
 
But when the Vanguards arrive, the unthinkable happens–the mecha that should be killing Gus instead saves him. Suddenly, Gus’s swan song becomes humanity’s encore, as he is chosen to join a small group of traitorous Vanguards and their pilots dedicated to saving humanity.
 
FORMAT/INFO: August Kitko and the Mechas from Space is the first ‘movement’ in The Starmetal Symphony Trilogy. It consists of twenty-two chapters, divided into three parts, from the third person singular point of view of Gus and Ardent, and is written in the simple present tense.
 
The novel was released by Orbit Books on 12th July 2022 in a paperback edition of 464 pages, as well as in ebook and audio formats.
 
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: It’s the year 2657 and humanity seems doomed to live out just one, final night. Up to this point, humans have managed to survive to survive generations of ecological disasters of their own creation, and the consequent wars over resources and power. The technological ingenuity required for humanity’s survival has led to expansive colonization of space. As in the past, these technological developments have done little to change political, economic, or social divisions of power. Humanity remains definitively human: a contradiction of exceptional nobility and exceptional flaws.
 
Then the Vanguards and their associated weapons arrive, exterminating humanity everywhere through space. A small group of these giant, sentient, mechanized beings systematically attack human colonies, wiping them out. Their attacks include packs of mechanized, fanged beasts under their networked control, “Ghosts” that bite down on the heads of victims to harvest memories and consciousness for digital compilation, assimilation into their collective robotic memory. Disturbingly, they use this data to resurrect simulacra of individual’s voices and image to pose as survivors that can lure humans from surrounding space in for destruction and compilation.
 
As humanity becomes aware of the threat and their tricks, communication and travel between colonies and with Earth swiftly halt behind a “Veil” of isolation, in fear over what messages can be trusted and in favor of local self-preservation. Now, all signs point to no surviving human colonies. All Earth military ships venturing out have been destroyed. And two of the Vanguards are headed toward Earth to finish their genocide.
 
If you’re a rich celebrity and all life is about to be snuffed out, you might as well go out with a party: a blaze of glory with your biggest fans. That’s exactly what super fashionable rock/pop star Ardent Violet chooses to do, and Montreal jazz pianist August (Gus) Kitko is among those hired to provide musical entertainment at the celebrity’s French Riviera blow-out.
 
The military claims to have developed a secret weapon they feel sure will stop the incoming Vanguard mechas. But Gus can’t shake his pessimistic outlook, an ennui that has set in his life amid the Apocalypse and the death of his two bandmates during past Vanguard attacks.
 
For one brief moment, Gus felt ecstasy and hope. Gus’s introduction to Ardent, and their immediate attraction to one another, led to a red-hot, rapid romance. But, things quickly fizzled out in argument. The outgoing Ardent wants to spend their last hours with their fans. The more introverted Gus would prefer spending his last moments alone with Ardent, to enjoy their newfound connection. When Gus belittles Ardent’s pop music talent during the heated exchange, Ardent angrily banishes Gus from their immediate presence.
 
Left alone again at the party as simple musical entertainment, Gus greets news of the failure of Earth’s secret weapon, and the continued imminent arrival of the Vanguard destroyers with depressed acceptance. Nothing left but to get behind the piano and give himself to the music up until the end. The great ship Earth may be going down, but the band plays on.
 
But when the Vanguards arrive, one of them – Greymalkin – is not behaving as expected. It seems enraptured by the complexity of Gus’ jazz, and Gus in turn begins to improvise around the audio emissions of Greymalkin. Hearing and seeing this, Ardent grabs their precious guitar, Baby, and joins in the improv: a jam session to end all. But even more perplexing, though causing massive damage to property and life, Greymalkin seems intent on fighting the other Vanguard.
 
Gus expects all will be over when Greymalkins massive arm and hand reach out to pluck him up, and the chest cavity of the mecha opens to engulf him, its cybernetics fusing with his body, his neural system. He soon learns that Greymalkin has chosen him as a Conduit, a human passenger to help guide the Vanguard in fighting its fellow mechas. Greymalkin and some of the Vanguards have rebelled, and decided that humanity should not be destroyed.
 
With all of this opens just the first chapter of August Kitko and the Mechas from Space. And it’s a wild, thrilling ride from there. Amid the explosive, action-packed start, White is able to give readers the setting, the basic premise of the novel, and introduce the two main characters with all their important history and quirks. It’s quite impressive.
 
The nature of the Vanguard’s mission and the Infinite that has created them become clearer as the novel progresses, as does the reasons for some of the Vanguards turning rebel and choosing to take on humans as conduits. Doubtless, these plot threads will also be expanded more fully in future movements of this delightful space opera symphony.
 
The start of the novel also immediately makes clear the importance of music to the novel, both thematically and literally to the plot. Music serves as the powerful tool of universal communication, a way for disparate entities and personalities to find common ground and peaceful coexistence despite competition or strife. After their fight, the music draws Ardent and Gus back together into a relationship that grows fuller, in both sexy and tender ways.
 
The cooperation forged by the common tie of music is not just the source of love and respect between Gus and Ardent, but also the basis for cohesion between Gus and the other human Conduits of the other Rebel Vanguards. Gus learns through his connection to Greymalkin that some Earth colonies have survived, and the collection of Rebel Vanguards and their humans can now start working together. Each of the Conduits is a musician of specific talent and brilliance. But they come from vastly different genres and styles and each carry their own creative egos. It’s wonderful how White parallels their learning to function as a coherent band of individuals to them learning to fight together functionally within their Vanguards.
 
Just as each of the human characters are unique, so too are the Vanguards. Not all agree to rebellion for the same reason, and not all have a particular concern for humanity necessarily. This diversity of characters, yet showing how they all can manage to find resilience to work together in common cause is another thing that White does extremely well. There’s a rich characterization in not just Gus and Ardent, but in the other core secondary characters – human or artificial. White makes them all, on some level, lovable. Even if a lovable curmudgeon or the overbearing military cliché. The characters (like the prose) get injected with basic humor and tenderness to balance their gruffness or faults.

 
(Picture courtesy of Scott @Book_Invasion)


I could go on about how I adored all the characters, particularly the other human Conduits and Ardent’s agent. But, I should focus on the two point of view protagonists here: Gus and Ardent. The two are opposite pieces that fit perfectly together. The upbeat and borderline narcissistic Ardent shines powerfully as powerful young non-binary individual who uses their talent to live exactly how they want and justify themselves to no-one (except perhaps their adorable mother.) Part of their personality seems to be a guard against hurt, failure, or unacceptance, and White interestingly balances Ardent’s strengths with a susceptibility to panic attacks. Ardent knows they are not perfect, but they also know they are fabulous. And they will do anything for what, and who, they love. Gus, on the other hand is more introspective and hesitant, an unlikely hero who is trying to find his place in a life he thought would be blissfully over. But with Ardent, he’s starting to find something to care about, a reason for resilience and fight. Even a restored hope in humanity.
The shifting point of view between Ardent and Gus works very well, giving readers a variety in the voice and tone that moves the plot forward. The simple present tense of the prose also works effectively in giving things an immediacy, propelling the pace of the novel forward. The shifting points of view also help balance the heavy weight of large-scale destruction and death with the tenderness and humor of individuals trying to figure their way through it together.
 
The action and setting of the novel evoke space opera, but one element of the genre that readers might find themselves looking for in August Kitko and the Mechas from Space would be the world building. As mentioned above, some aspects of that are here: the nature of the Vanguard threat and their rebellion. However, what I found notably absent were distinctions between Earth and the colonies. Characters, whether from Earth, or not, didn’t seem noticeably culturally unique from that separation. Details on ways humanity may have diverged from those distances weren’t there. Now, I felt this issue, but wasn’t particularly bothered by it because White does so much other stuff with the novel. However, I could see how some readers who really adore or demand those types of details might be disappointed.
 
Speculative details do appear aplenty within the novel, nonetheless, particularly in terms of new technologies humans on Earth utilize and what geopolitical changes have occurred on Earth over the centuries from our day. Though not a focus of the novel, White peppers these details into the plot from the action sequences to the quiet moments, such as a dinner date between Gus and Ardent where Gus decides to make them the universe’s best hot dog for the romantic evening. The little details on obtaining groceries and cooking walk that SF tightrope of balancing familiarity with new technology/conventions and vocabulary nicely.
 
In the end though, August Kitko and the Mechas from Space is mainly two-pronged: 1) a story of Gus’ and Ardent’s resilience, and their relationship, as microcosm of humanities resilience, and potential for growth/achievement, and 2) a rip-roaring rock opera, mecha adventure in space – an entertaining page turner of unabashed fun amid chaos.
 
No novel is ‘for everybody,’ but this is one that readers should easily be able to figure out whether it’s in their zone of appreciation and enjoyment. Like its characters of Ardent and Gus: from cover to premise to unfolding, August Kitko and the Mechas from Space isn’t hiding what it is, it’s boldly and loudly and proudly advertising for fans to dig into this Starmetal Symphony.
 
CONCLUSION: August Kitko and the Mechas from Space bursts with action, humor, and heart. Amid a dire and tragic setting of humanity facing apocalyptic extinction, it’s a hopeful shot of joyous adrenaline and whimsy. Confronting death, Gus and Ardent choose to celebrate life to its fullest, taking every moment they may have left to fully be themselves, and to be there for one another. White uses lively characterization and pacing – with an effective blend of space opera, mecha anime, and music – to tell a story of human strength, weakness, and resilience. The Starmetal Symphony is simply ripe for adaptation into a rock opera musical, and I’ll be sorely disappointed if that never happens.


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