Ten Low is another discovery I owe to my fellow book lovers, and in this specific case to Tammy at Books, Bones and Buffy. Her mention of Mad Max, Firefly and Dune was more than enough to pique my interest, and the story proved to be a non-stop, breathless adventure that led me to the discovery of a well-crafted, intriguing alien world.
Said world, or rather moon, is Factus, a place mostly inhabited by ex-convicts, smugglers and die-hard settlers trying to eke out a harsh life in a place that is mostly deserts and barren plains. Some sort of civil war has been going on for some time between two factions, The Accord and the Free Limits, with the former getting the upper hand and now dictating terms and policies all across the colonized worlds: it’s clear that there is a great deal of resentment still going on, something that still bleeds over interactions and colors the way day-to-day business is conducted. And let’s not forget the moon’s other problem, the low level of oxygen that requires painful adaptation and, in extreme cases, some highly sought-out oxy supplements in the form of marbles, that work just as well as currency.
The titular Ten Low used to be an army medic, and she was jailed for some unnamed crime (even though we’ll learn something about it in the course of the story): she’s an escaped convict, and one with a huge burden of guilt on her shoulders – what she calls the tally – that she endeavors to balance out by offering her medical services to anyone who needs them. For this very reason, when she observes the crash of an Accord ship she rushes to the site to help the survivors, and manages to save a young girl – a child really, or so she appears, because Gabriella Ortiz is a famous general, part of an experiment in genetic enhancement that turned a number of children into chillingly effective military commanders.
Instead of being grateful, young Gabriella is quite harsh toward Ten, constantly calling her ‘traitor’ – one has to wonder if it’s the effect of the conditioning or if her attitude would have been the same nonetheless – but she has to bow, grudgingly, to Ten’s superior knowledge of survival on Factus, where the harsh environmental conditions are only one of the dangers the two have to face: outlaws, thieves and the feared Seekers, a sort of crazy cult whose adepts harvest the organs of their victims. In this sort of lawless world, reaching a modicum of safety for her young charge proves to be quite a journey for Ten, especially when she discovers that the crash was far from an accident and that Gabriella’s safety is threatened by more than the “normal” perils of Factus…
Ten Low is indeed an action-packed story, the kind that compels you to keep reading by presenting a chain of events that feels both inescapable and terrifying, not unlike being on a runaway train rolling at high speed toward a chasm: the lives of the characters are constantly in peril, to the point that even asking for help might lead to life-or-death situations, and there is hardly any room for a moment of relief. Still, the author manages to develop the characters quite well through their interactions, particularly where Ten and Gabriella are concerned: to me they are polar opposites, the former being someone burdened by a heavy, guilt-ridden past, the latter doggedly hanging on to what might prove a very tenuous, uncertain future. It did not take me long to connect with Ten, thanks to her intriguing mix of willpower and vulnerability, of strength and dogged determination – not to mention the intriguing link with the “Ifs”, the weird alien creatures who seem able to manipulate the space-time continuum, are attracted by crossroad events that might lead to multiple resolutions and who appear very focused on Ten’s actions and choices.
Gabriella remains contemptuous and abrasive from beginning to end, and there are times when her snotty attitude really grated on my nerves: one might expect at least a modicum of gratitude for being saved from certain death, right? But after a while the young girl’s aloofness looks more like a defensive measure than anything else, and her dealings with Ten morph into sarcasm, as a way of not acknowledging a change in perspective that is nonetheless there.
Alongside them there are other awesome characters, like smuggler queen Falco and her G’hals – henchwomen, soldiers – which brings the… female quotient of this story into a quite high range: I loved how women can be as brave, ruthless and bloody-minded as men and yet, considering the harshness of this world, its “live and let die” philosophy, they still come across as capable of higher sentiments like loyalty and team integrity, turning them into well-rounded figures that made this story even more enjoyable.
If I wanted to find any fault with this novel it would be in the scarcity of the historical background, so to speak, since I’m still quite curious about the Accord/Free Limits conflict and the way that war was waged. While I acknowledge that such information would have proved a burden for such a fast-paced narrative, I would not mind gathering more information about this vision of the universe: should the author decide to go back to Factus and these characters, it might be the occasion to create some more depth for this world, and I hope that this will not be my last encounter with these characters and this environment – on the contrary, I look forward to it.