The Donovan series has been one of my favorite stories of alien planet colonization from the very start, and with each new installment it manages to keep fresh and intriguing by adding new faces and new situations to the core elements and characters at its roots. Capella III, a planet 30 light years from Earth, was named Donovan as a tribute to the first casualty from the initial wave of colonists: Donovan is a lush, promising world rich in precious minerals and with an abundance of fertile soil, but its nature – be it animal or vegetal – is beyond hostile and the population’s rate of survival is very low, even when taking all the possible precautions.
The original colonists have learned how to come to terms with their new home, but still life on Donovan is a dangerous one, even more so for the new arrivals – uncharitably called fresh meat – and particularly if their journey did not go as planned, as was the case of the ship Freelander, whose subjective journey went on for over a century and is now an empty derelict where weird ghostly apparitions and a mountain of bones are the only passengers; or of the Vixen, that appeared to arrive instantly at the planned destination but was in effect written off as lost for the past fifty years.
In this fourth novel of the saga, the ship Ashanti reaches Donovan after a journey that lasted seven years beyond its expected duration: knowing that the hydroponic tanks could not sustain the whole ship complement for so long, the passengers staged a revolt that forced Captain Galluzzi to seal them off in their deck, thus condemning them to starve to death so that the crew could reach Capella III alive. And yet the transportees somehow survived, led by the crazily charismatic leader Batuhan who turned anthropophagy into a religion, naming his followers the Unreconciled. The arrival of the Ashanti poses a new series of challenges for the Donovanians, who have to deal with a group of cannibalistic religious fanatics who represent both a danger for the colony and for themselves, since they are led by a madman who refuses to take any advice on how to deal with the planet’s threats.
One of main attractions of the Donovan series comes from the fact that the location offers the possibility of exploring new ground – and new dangers! – in each book, since the planet remains fairly uncharted due to its deadly challenges: in Unreconciled we get a glimpse of Tyson Station, a promising settlement that was previously abandoned and where the main characters face both the “old” dangerous critters, like slugs and gotcha vines and so forth, and a new one – a huge, very deadly beast no one had seen before and whose existence is not stored into quetzals’ TriNA memory, apart from a strong feeling of abject terror. And if even a quetzal can be so scared of this monster, you can imagine the kind of havoc it can wreak on humans…
The story itself is carried by the increasing sense of impending menace that comes from various directions: on one side we have the Unreconciled who seem, with only a few exceptions, to have completely bought into Batuhan’s insane belief that by consuming their enemies they will “purify” them and bring about a new, better world – one of the characters at some point states that anthropophagy comes from four basic motivations, survival, ritual, political, and pathological, and that the self-styled messiah has wrapped them all up into a twisted faith fueled by the despair of people facing certain death. Then there are the ever-present quetzals that seem more determined than ever to kill as many of the intruding humans as they can, acting with a cunning and a tactical organization that once again show them as the more formidable foes on the whole planet. And again there are the “simple” human machinations, with the constantly shifting balance of power between the administrators of Port Authority and the crime lord Dan Wirth who finds himself at a crossroads in his search for riches and power. These elements are presented in alternating chapters that keep the story flowing at a fast pace and make for some electrifying sequences that simply beg to turn the pages faster and faster.
But the psychological angle of the characters, old and new, remains the most fascinating aspect of the story still: we see a more settled Talina, who has somehow reached a sort of armed truce with the quetzal essence stored in her consciousness; or a mellowed but still combative Kalico who seems to have found true purpose in a place and situation that’s the polar opposite of what she had in her old life; or again an older Kylee, who has found a way to reconcile her dual nature and reclaim part of her humanity thanks to her bond of friendship/apprenticeship with Talina. The new arrivals, though, offer great opportunities for reflection, in particular where Captain Galluzzi and the Unreconciled are concerned.
Ashanti’s captain is a very tormented man: faced with a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation, he’s crushed by the weight of his decision and alternately desires and dreads the moment when he will be called to answer for it, so that he’s stunned when none of the punishment he envisioned is forthcoming, partly because there is no authority on Donovan designated to administer such punishment, and partly because the colonists – even Supervisor Aguila – have seen even direst consequences come from similar situations and know that there is no easy answer to the kind of dilemma Ashanti and other ships faced when confronted with impossible odds. I enjoyed how Shig Mosadek, Donovan’s resident philosopher, tries to help Captain Galluzzi reconcile himself with his actions and how he’s growing from a secondary character into one of the moral pillars of the colony, a delightful blend of wisdom and gentle humor that I’ve come to greatly appreciate.
The Unreconciled and their leader Batuhan, on the other hand, present another kind of dilemma: once the circumstances that brought them to seek survival in horrible ways are over, can they be brought back to the human fold? Can they be considered human still? What’s terrifying is that almost all of them, in a sort of perverted form of Stockholm’s Syndrome, keep believing in Batuhan’s dogma and are ready to follow him along the same bloody, flesh-consuming path even when Donovan starts doling out its deadly lessons. There are no easy answers to these dilemmas, and the book offers none, but the look we are afforded into the Unreconciled’s mindset is at the same time fascinating and horrifying.
There are a number of narrative threads still open in the Donovan saga, which makes me hope that more books in this series will be published: apart from the mystery of the new deadly creature discovered by Talina & Co., there is the angle of the oceanographers landed on the planet from Ashanti with the mission of exploring Donovan’s bodies of water – and if the land is so dangerous, what will the oceans hold in store for our adventurers? And the characters offer many more opportunities for growth that I’m certain Mr. Gear will have many more stories to tell us about them.
Keeping my fingers crossed…