I received this novel from Orbit Books through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
When a book manages to surprise me by offering much more than I expected from it, it’s always a wonderful discovery: this was indeed the case with Adrift, a story that ended up being more than the sum of its parts, and a compelling read. The Red Panda is a dilapidated tour ship taking groups of tourists around Sigma Station to admire the Horseshoe Nebula, and this trip does not look much different than the countless others that preceded it: the travelers are restless and grumpy because they had to wait for their guide, young Hannah Elliot, who is on her first day on the job and understandably flustered and lost; Captain Volkova is a disgruntled veteran of the recent war that pitted Frontier and Colonies against each other, and prefers to keep to herself in the cockpit, drinking and chain-smoking; and last but not least, the ship’s barman just called in sick, so the tourists can forget any catering during the excursion.
If this collection of small annoyances can remind us of the unavoidable hiccups of organized tours, what happens next is totally, shockingly unexpected: out of the jump gate linking Sigma to the rest of the galaxy comes an unknown ship that proceeds to attack and destroy the station and the gate itself – only the Panda, thanks to Volkova’s piloting skills, manages to remain unscathed and out of sight of the enemy ship. With limited resources and a run-down vessel, the ten survivors of the attack face a bleak and short future: the destruction of the jump gate cut them off from any kind of communication and help, and with no easily reachable destination their life support and supplies will be depleted soon. Worse still, the attackers might return and this time discover there are still witnesses to what happened…
It’s at this point that what might have been a relatively simple survival story, set in a claustrophobic environment, turns instead into a detailed character study and one that singles out each personality, shifting our initial perspective for every one of them while showing the individuals’ changes brought on by the harrowing situation they find themselves into. One of my favorite narrative themes is that of a group of people thrown together by unforeseen circumstances and forced to work together for their survival, and there could not be a less homogeneous crowd than the Panda’s passengers (and captain). Hannah, the tour guide, is a young woman still trying to find herself and her path in life: shy, insecure, and plagued with a heavy burden of self-doubt, she finds herself in the improbable role of leader, if nothing else because she’s wearing the tour operator’s uniform. At first I found it hard to sympathize with her, because she came across at somewhat whiny, but as circumstances forced her to take on the responsibility of keeping the group together, and as safe as possible, I warmed up to her and came to appreciate the effort she put into the unwanted task that fate dropped into her lap.
Another character whose outlook changed drastically is that of Jack, the equivalent of a present-day travel reviewer: he’s a man quite down on his luck due to a series of negative turns, and he has all but given up on everything and everyone, becoming a cynic and a listless drunkard. During most of the story he tends to flow with the tide, letting his disillusionment with life guide his steps, and yet there is a powerful need for redemption in him, one that might lead him toward a much-needed change.
These are only two examples, but the entire group runs through some pretty wild alterations as the story unfolds: what happens aboard the Panda is indeed a thorough study on the effects of hopelessness and despair boiling over in the close quarters of the ship, a place with no escape – not just from the predicaments at hand, but more importantly from one’s own demons. And every one of the Panda survivors does have some demons to fight, even the two teenaged sons of the Livingstones, a couple on the verge of divorce. What’s interesting here is that we are made privy to the characters’ background story, so that we are able to learn what shaped them in the past and what makes them the persons they are: these flashbacks are not only placed at very convenient points in the narrative, but they also blend in a seamless way with the survivors’ present predicament and in some fashion influence the way each character chooses his or her actions.
The Red Panda itself becomes a character at some point, because this dilapidated vessel, that probably never saw better days, is part and parcel of the troubles of its ten occupants and the way it’s described – the substandard parts, the accumulated grime, the scarce supplies that would have been inadequate even if tragedy had not struck – makes it stand out in sharp relief and share with the reader every one of its ominous creaks, obnoxious smells and claustrophobic environment. Yet, like the humans it shelters, even the Panda becomes capable of unthinkable feats and manages to battle its way through incredible odds, to the point that it’s impossible not to root for it, as if it were somewhat alive and sentient.
Adrift is indeed the kind of story that compels you to turn the pages as quickly as you can as the narrative develops in often unpredictable, but always believable ways – maybe with the exception of the too-rapid change of heart of one particular character, that seemed much too quick given the beliefs that moved his actions and had informed his choices up to that moment. Still, it was a little snag that I could easily move past in the breathless journey that was this highly enjoyable story.