Even before reading Pariah, I was very happy to learn it would not be the last book in the Donovan series, but now that I finished this third installment I’m even more glad that the story will not end here, because this latest novel considerably raised the stakes while still leaving many questions unanswered.
Donovan is so far the only habitable world discovered by humanity and it stands at thirty light-years from Earth: the voyage to reach it is fraught with dangers, mostly because the drive technology – which creates a sort of shortcut between distances – does not always work as intended, so that some ships are lost forever or emerge at destination after decades or centuries, the crews having succumbed to hardship or madness. For this reason the colonists of Donovan have learned to rely only on themselves, and had to do it in a very hostile environment: if the planet’s soil is both fertile and rich in minerals, the place is also filled with aggressive flora and fauna waiting only to prey on unwary humans.
Book 1, Outpost, saw the arrival of the ship Turalon, bringing new colonists and a supervisor from the Corporation – the entity ruling Earth and financing the colony ships: what they found was a reality far removed from their expectations and a society ill-disposed to fall again under the thumb of a far-off organization. Book 2, Abandoned, showed us how the new arrivals tried to integrate in Donovanian society, adapting their outlook and goals to the planet’s unexpected environment – and there was also the added mystery of the ghost ship Freelander and its ominous cargo of bones.
Pariah expands on its predecessors by showing us how the characters we know are progressing in their journey: security Chief Talina Perez is dealing with the “infection” from quetzal DNA – they are the planet’s largest predators, and their ability to mix molecules between species might hold the key to communication and, perhaps, a truce; the changes Talina undergoes range from improved vision and hearing to what look like hallucinations that impair her ability to function. For this reason she chooses to leave Port Authority, Donovan’s main settlement, to deal with these changes without endangering her fellow colonists. Former supervisor Kalico Aguila has long forgotten her corporate ambitions and is turning into a worthy Donovanian, not only because she’s learned to integrate with the rest of the colony, but because she takes to heart its well-being, to the point that she’s very serious about the threats against her new home. Dan Wirth, the escaped criminal who arrived with Turalon, has consolidated his hold on the less savory sides of colonial economy like gambling and prostitution, and is now striving for a patina of respectability by building a school, although no one is willing to trust him as far as they can throw him…
As with previous instances, it’s the unexpected arrival of the ship Vixen that upsets the ever-precarious balance of Port Authority, partly because the Vixen has been considered lost for 50 years – while its crew and passengers’ subjective experience was that of an instantaneous travel from Earth to Donovan – and partly because two of those passengers prove highly disruptive, each in his own way.
Dr. Dortmund Weisbacher is an environmental preservationist who made his name and career with a program for the revival of ancient Earth flora and fauna in protected areas and is determined to safeguard Donovan’s biome at all costs: he’s a haughty and self-centered individual with a high opinion of his own value, untouched by the harsh wake-up call he receives once he learns that the planet has already been colonized and that the “contamination” he loathes has become a reality in the past few decades. Not even the information that his carefully maintained Earth preservations failed, because plants and animals had not built an evolved resistance to the current micro-organisms, can shake him out of his blind faith, nor is Donovan able to make him understand its basic principle, that foolishness means grievous harm, or death. Weisbacher’s obtuse lack of perspective helps to drive home once again Donovan’s most important law, the need to adapt to one’s environment to ensure survival, and the fact that this planet does not forgive recklessness or mistakes.
A lesson that the other new player seems to ignore as well: where Weisbacher is merely an annoyance, in the grand scheme of things, Tamarland Benteen is another matter entirely. Ally and henchmen of a Corporation CEO, he boards Vixen just in time to avoid capture by an opposing faction, and once he realizes there is no return to Earth he decides to build his own empire on Donovan by applying the cut-throat methods that served him so well on Earth. Deadly as a poisonous snake and totally without scruples he proceeds to create a power base in Port Authority but, as the arrogant professor, he fails to understand the true dynamics of the colony and its inhabitants. Where I previously hated Dan Wirth with a passion, Benteen made me see how there are several degrees of evil and that the one held by Wirth is clearly not the worst one…
The power struggle that ensues is one of the driving themes of Pariah, and builds an ever-escalating tension that compelled me to keep turning the pages to see where the author would take the story, and for this reason it made Talina’s battle with her inner demons a somewhat less interesting theme than intended. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s a very important subject, made even more fascinating by the journey into the Mayan lore at the roots of Talina’s past, but to me it seemed to take too long and it was somewhat confusing, while all I wanted was to see how the situation in Port Authority ran its course. In the end, all the pieces fit together well (and I’m not using this metaphor at random…) and open the way to a possible change in the relationship between humans and quetzals, but still, seeing Talina helpless in the face of what was happening to her felt so wrong – given the way her personality had been drawn – that I could not wait to get over it all. On the other hand, having the chief security operative out of the way for part of the novel allowed other ‘regulars’ to get more space and to delve deeper into their characters, particularly in the case of Kalico Aguila who is quickly turning into my favorite player. She is still the commanding woman who is used to see things go her way, but she has learned to apply those drives to the common good: Donovan has marked her in more ways than one, but Aguila is one of the finest examples of the maxim “what does not kill us, makes us stronger”.
As a small aside, I would like to add that I was pleased for the confirmation a certain suspicion I had been nurturing from Book 1, about what happened with Cap Taggart: if you read the book you will know what I’m talking about… 😉
With Outpost and Abandoned, the author introduced us to an epic struggle for survival in an unforgiving environment, but it’s with Pariah that he consolidated his vision of this world and its people: I’m beyond curious to see where he will take us next, and what other dangers and mysteries will face the people of Donovan, but I’m certain that it will be a thrilling adventure.