Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.
This column’s theme: Crew’s Control. Three stories about spaceships where crewmembers who are supposed to be taking orders end up giving them when they have to sign off on way more than they signed on for.
So if you like:
A gritty, steampunk feel to your space pirates
Weird alien civilizations
The scattered planet solar system of Firefly’s ‘verse
Strong female protagonists
Young adult books that won the 2017 Locus award
You might like
A teenage girl and her sister run away to join the crew of the Monetta and discover that life on a spaceship can be hard and the universe can be pretty unforgiving.
She folded down two metal struts like the rests of a chair, with a kind of pistol grip at the end of each strut.
I copied what she was doing. “Which part is the gun?”
“The part that stays outside. This is the part that points and fires. Open those boxes and bring me two more of these.” Prozor reached over and lowered the mask over my eyes. It was a blank metal plate, curved so that it obscured my vision to the left and right. Prozor touched a stud on the left arm of my harness and the mask seemed to swell to blank out everything around me.
Blackness filled the mask, and then stars peppered that blackness.
“Now look around. Move your head, your whole body.”
I twitched one way and there was the bauble world, with part of the Monetta looming into view beneath it. I turned some more, and there was the purple-blue shimmer of the Congregation. Swinging out from the hull, exactly following my line of sight, were the muzzles of guns.
“You feel this trigger?” Prozor forced my index finger onto a hard metal stud in the pistol grip. “One squeeze, that’s all it takes. Works anywhere inside the ship, within reason. Shoots magnetic slugs, five leagues per second. Use ’em sparingly, or you’ll cook the coils before we run out of slugs.”
“Maybe it would have been an idea to have the firing lesson weeks ago.”
“Not my problem, girlie. This is what happens when you make Cap’n Rack twitchy.”
Most science fiction settings can be accurately described by comparing them to some other well-known story, but then there’s Revenger: a space adventure story set in some very unusual space. The quick and accurate-but-probably-not-in-the-way-you-think-it-is description would be Treasure Island set in Firefly’s ‘verse crossed with Mick Farren’s dystopian DNA Cowboys novels. It’s not exactly steampunk as it’s set in a far future, heavily colonized solar system that has a lot of effectively magical alien technology floating around. This technology becomes a central plot point as the crew of the Monetta makes a living trying to salvage it. This is, of course, not without its risks as the crews are well aware.
There’s a lot of weird ideas here, but a lot of room for them to exist, and they all seem to connect pretty well. While the universe will definitely feel unfamiliar to the reader, it’s introduced as the protagonist discovers it, so everyone is seeing it for the first time as she boards the Monetta and heads off into space to try and recover alien artifacts. To say where things go from there would require introducing spoilers, but suffice to say she doesn’t have it easy. If you’re looking for a gritty space adventure in a really unique setting, you’ll want to give Revenger a read.
Or if you like:
The lighter side of science fiction
A less silly Douglas Adams
The Dirty Jobs of the Future
The mostly forgotten 70’s TV Show Quark
You might like
A virus incapacitates the crew of the EMCS Pufferfish, leaving only the cleaning staff untouched. Now they have to avoid getting killed by their crewmates and use their particular skill sets to figure out who did it, and why this might affect way more than their own ship.
She yanked her sealant canister from her harness and drew a large zigzag of gel down the wall. “Monroe, give me a hand.”
The two of them seized Schulz and shoved her face-first against the wall, holding her in place as the sealant hardened. By the time the others recovered, Schulz was secure.
“Kumar, cleaning spray.” Mops pointed to the floor between her and the remaining ferals.
Kumar pulled a spray wand from his harness, secured its hose to a bottle of concentrated detergent, and blasted a film of green suds down the corridor. He coated the four crew who were approaching as well.
Holmes was the first to fall. His feet shot forward, arms flailing as he slammed to the floor.
Mops spread another mess of sealant onto the opposite wall, grabbed Holmes’ boot, and with Monroe’s help, glued him in place. Upside down.
“Sir, I still have some hull paint from that repair job two days ago,” Kumar said hesitantly. He held up his spray wand. “I could—”
“Do it,” Mops snapped.
Kumar nodded and unscrewed the detergent from his compressor hose, replacing it with a heavier canister. As the remaining attackers closed in, he fired a thick spray of black paint at their hoods.
After that, it was simple enough to glue the rest of them to the walls and floor.
If you’ve ever been interested in what happens off the bridge of a spaceship, if you’ve ever wondered who scraped that crewman off the bulkhead and made it look like it never happened by next week’s episode, and if you already understand why the janitor is one of the most important people in the building to know, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. It strikes a light tone, and the jokes in it serve the plot, yet remain plausible, never veering over the line into absolutely ridiculous. The characters are in way over their heads, yet smart enough to use their skills cleaning up messes to clean up their own as they try to figure out what happened and save their crew. This is a standalone story, but the ending makes it clear there’s plenty of room for more adventures with this crew.
Or if you like:
The lighter side of science fiction
Long dead alien civilizations that maybe aren’t long dead enough
Smartass ship crews
Overarching central mysteries
People in way over their head
You might like
The crew of the White Raven finds a 500-year-old colonization ship that’s returned to the solar system after something was done to it – something that has implications for humanity as a whole.
“A genuine old timey antique. It’s gotta be about five hundred years old.”
“A goldilocks ship. Wow. Weren’t they propelled by atomic bombs?”
“Pretty much, yeah, at least the first wave, and this was one of the earliest models launched. Looks like it’s had some modification since then, though. The goldilocks ships were no-frills. They didn’t go in for decorative S&M spikes.”
“Maybe a pirate crew found it and tried to make it look more badass?”
“That ship is old, cap. No pirate would want it for anything other than scrap, or to sell to a collector.”
“So what’s it doing here? Goldilocks ships aren’t supposed to come back. That’s the whole point. They took one-way journeys, way out, trips of desperation and exploration. Now five hundred years later it’s just floating in trans-Neptunian space? By cosmic terms it’s practically back where it started.”
Ashok nodded. “That’s the big juicy mystery. No way that ship came back from anywhere, right?
I’m a big fan of books with a mystery to be solved, especially when that mystery turns out to be something unexpected, and The Wrong Stars does not disappoint. That pacing was good in that this is revealed a bit at a time. The characters are smart in how they deal with it, and overall the plot is pretty tight. While I had a few minor quibbles with a few of the character’s relationships, and the amount of exposition setting up the setting (which tends to take me out of the story as I’m more of a ‘show don’t tell’ reader) the latter was handled surprisingly well, and the former was at least plausible, but neither stopped me from plowing through to find out what was going to happen next. The novel does have a definite resolution, but the crew is set up for further adventures as this is the first book in Pratt’s Axiom series. If you’re looking for a light science fiction novel featuring a plucky crew with big problems, The Wrong Stars fits the bill.
So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be The Tip of the Iceberg.