Thanks to SciFi Month this past November I felt the need to add more SF books to my reading queue, and a quick peek at my ever-growing “wanted” list reminded me of this novel that had looked very intriguing when I saw it mentioned online. Although a bit wary about it, since Military SF does not always agree with me, I soon discovered to my joy that this series is more about people than technology, and that Aftershocks is the promising beginning to an interesting saga.
The six-planets system in which the story is set is slowly recovering after a devastating war started by the Gretians against the other five settlements, who in response created the Alliance and defeated Gretia, which is now occupied by the winning side and struggling under political turmoil and the effort of paying for the reparations imposed by the Alliance. Aftershocks follows the journey of four individuals from different extractions, offering a multifaceted view of the scenario in which the events take place: their various experiences contribute to the accumulating clues that paint a picture of a complex and intriguing situation still in the first stages of its development.
Aden is a Gretian POW and a former member of the Blackguards, Gretia’s elite troops, although his role as an intelligence operative kept him from the atrocities committed by this infamous corps: after five years of a quite comfortable imprisonment on an arcology orbiting Rhodia, he is released together with the other Blackguards but does not feel like going back to a home he left in anger long before the war. Idina is a sergeant in the Alliance contingent enforcing the occupation on Gretia and she struggles with her post-war feelings about the defeated adversaries, particularly because she now needs to work alongside some of them in the peacekeeping activities required by her present role. Dunstan is a captain in the Rhodian navy, suddenly thrown from his somewhat boring patrol duty into an escalating conflict with pirates who seem focused in something more than a simple looting spree of merchant ships. And then there is Solveig, the daughter of a former Gretian magnate, who finds herself at the head of the company and must deal with a conflict between her duties to the company and her family ties.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Aftershocks is its depiction of a multi-planetary society going through the aftermath of a bloody war caused by the desire to control valuable resources – particularly Palladium – rather than by a mere expansionist drive, so that the end of the conflict has left in its wake a sense of unspoken unease: my take on the situation is that everybody might be worried about a repeat of the attempt by someone else – the Alliance operatives are acting together, indeed, but certain events in the story led me to believe that someone could be “stirring the pot”, so to speak, to create suspicion and mistrust, playing both sides against the middle to gain the upper hand. The first clues seem to point that way, and what little is shown in this first book had me totally hooked and eager to see where the story will lead.
Given the complexity of this scenario, the author quite skillfully depicts the background by moving constantly between the various POVs: their disparate origins offer the chance of describing their respective worlds without need for lengthy info-dumps, while their reactions to the current situation offer a similar opportunity for a few flashbacks on the war, so that readers find themselves quite comfortably set in the story and able to follow the characters in their individual journeys. Of the four, Dunstan seems the more prosaic, but I believe this comes from the fact he enjoys less exposure than the others: I hope that as the story progresses he will find himself in the thick of the action, and that the blend of military competence and humanity that are his most notable qualities will allow him to emerge in finer detail.
Aden, on the other hand, is the one with more time in the spotlight: he’s adrift in more ways than one, since he joined the military to escape from a smothering home only to find himself embroiled in a war he did not look for. Quite skilled, thanks to his previous intelligence duties, he however possesses an unpretentious disposition and a deep honesty that make him easily likable: hopefully, the next books will reveal more about his past and offer more clues about his present.
Idina is a quite complex character: her combat role in the war forced her to face its worst aspects and while she’s not exactly suffering from PTSD, those experiences have left a deep mark on her – having to work alongside her former enemies she must deal with very complex feelings that become even more difficult to analyze when she finds herself at the center of a tragic event whose origins and consequences defy interpretation.
Solveig enjoys too little narrative space to be clearly defined, but I see a great potential in her personality, mostly because she’s aware of being classified as “daddy’s daughter” by other people who seem unable to perceive her qualities: still, there is an iron core to her whose evolution I quite look forward to.
As I said, Aftershocks retains all the qualities and ingredients for an engaging space opera, and I certainly enjoyed it as a starting point for the series, but I have a big complaint about it, one that prevents me from giving it the full four stars that the book deserves: it’s too short – to use a cinematic comparison, what we can enjoy in this first volume feels more like a long trailer rather than the full movie, because the characters’ arcs are sketched but not brought to any satisfying stage, just as the story itself is cut just when the individual paths seem to be about to reach a turning point.
Luckily enough, there is already a second book in print, so I will not have to wait too long to see how events unfold, but I can’t help wondering if this narrative choice is going to be repeated in the future, because being left in the lurch is not a pleasant experience… 😉
Still, I feel like recommending this series to all enthusiasts of the genre.