DEAD SILENCE, by S.A. Barnes

Answering distress calls from space is a sure way of meeting countless forms of trouble, and Dead Silence proves this point once again with a compelling, claustrophobic story that successfully mixes science fiction and horror.

Claire Kovalik and her crew of four are nearing the end of their last tour of duty servicing Earth’s comweb relays: from now on, Verux Corporation’s maintenance will be done through automated drones and Claire – whose past history made her unfit for reassignment on any other kind of ship – is now destined to a dead-end groundside clerical job. This bleak future seems inevitable until the LINA (the maintenance ship under Claire’s lead) receives a distress signal from beyond the comweb’s farthest range: as impossible as it might seem, the call comes from the Aurora, a luxury vessel that disappeared in mysterious circumstances twenty years previously, during its maiden voyage. The discovery, together with the possibility of financial security obtained through a salvage operation, drives Claire and her crew to board the Aurora, but what they find is a nightmare scenario: frozen corpses floating in microgravity, the unmistakable signs of senseless violence, and cryptic sentences drawn in blood on the walls. What’s worse, the LINA’s crew seems increasingly affected by this gruesome scenario as they keep hearing voices or seeing other people, impossible as it looks on this ship of the dead: fighting against time to effect the repairs necessary to bring the Aurora back toward civilized space, Claire and her crew must battle with their inner demons and the inexplicable horror that influenced the passengers, driving them to murder or suicide in countless gruesome ways…

Dead Silence drew me in from the very start, mostly thanks to its split narrative alternating between a present in which Claire is trying to reconstruct what happened on the Aurora, relaying her fragmented recollections to two Verux officials, and the recent past in which the LINA crew faces the grisly mystery aboard the lost ship – there is also a third timeline, seen through brief flashbacks, in which we learn that Claire is the only survivor of a doomed colony decimated by a viral infection, and which explains the heavy psychological burden that she’s been carrying ever since.  Learning from the start that something went hideously wrong with the mission, and progressing forward toward the discovery in alternating timelines, is the factor that grabbed my interest from page one and compelled me to read on, fighting the mounting sense of dread that the story creates very skillfully.

As for Claire, she is a fascinating character because there are so many dark areas in her past that carry on in the present – including her suicidal thoughts at the prospect of being denied the freedom of space once the last repair tour will be over – and turn her into a possibly unreliable narrator, particularly when we learn that she seems to be the only survivor of the LINA as well, with no memory about what happened to her crew, except for some ghastly flashes of their deaths – provided, of course, that these are real memories and not part of the… visions that have been plaguing Claire since her childhood in the failed colony.  Claire is indeed not new at ghostly visitations, and at first, when she sees some weird images on board the Aurora, she believes them part of her psychological problems, but when her crew mates start having the same kinds of encounters – which become increasingly horrifying and realistic – it becomes clear that something else is at work here.

The descriptions of what Claire’s crew finds aboard the doomed ship are quite vivid, a frozen (literally so) tableau of what must have been the last moments for crew and passengers alike before the life support cut off, and it’s clear that some form of madness must have infected them all because there is evidence both of deadly struggles and of suicides, the latter apparently induced by some form of despair or terror. The dreadful scenario is magnified by the luxurious setting, that of a ship where no expenses were spared for the comfort and enjoyment of the wealthy passengers, and yet no level of opulence could save those people from the deadly dangers of space, which is revealed once again as a hostile environment set on killing any “trespassers”.   And whatever it is that pushed the people aboard Aurora toward violence is still present, encroaching on the minds of LINA’s crew, and further deteriorating the already tense interpersonal relationships between them as it enhances the climate of antagonism and distrust already present from the start.

I have to say that the author managed very successfully to infuse the story, from the very start, with a sense of dread and unshakable uneasiness, focusing them into a need to know what really happened, both to the Aurora and to Claire’s crew. I felt great sympathy for Claire because, despite her apparent unreliability, she comes across as an honest person, one whose life has been very difficult to say the least, but who is still capable of great feats of courage and determination in spite of the obstacles – material and psychological – on her path. 

Where the novel falters a little, in my opinion, is in the revelation of the underlying mystery of the Aurora’s disaster, because after the amazing buildup leading to it, it feels almost… mundane, for want of a better word, and while it might make sense in consideration of the background laid by the story, to me it seemed quite anti-climactic. Also, the lack of explanation about Claire’s “ability” to see ghosts was slightly disappointing, because the little clues linking back to her childhood trauma appeared to point toward something intriguing.  But these are minor problems in what proved to be a very appealing read, one that kept me awake until the small hours out of a burning need to see where the story would lead: as far as “space horror” goes, Dead Silence was a quite satisfactory find.

My Rating:

31 thoughts on “DEAD SILENCE, by S.A. Barnes

  1. This is a compelling review!! I have this on my TBR, even if I wasn’t completely sold on it at the beginning, because horror is not really my thing, but it seems like there are a ton of interesting things in there that I just have to try!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read this one – but space horror, so long as it doesn’t turn into a ridiculous gorefest like the film Event Horizon, is a sub-genre I do enjoy. I loved your review and was all set to consider getting hold of this one, until I got to the bit where you mention that the ending is rather mundane after the massive build-up of tension, which I HATE:). Thank you for a lovely, informative read – and helping me dodge a bullet. I don’t have the energy to rant about a disappointing read just now:)).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The ending is not so much disappointing as… a little deflated, because I expected something different – and we know how much expectations can betray us 😉
      Still, I enjoyed the book and the rating I gave it reflects that: I would still recommend it, particularly because there is no “gore fest” to speak of, it’s more a kind of “mood horror” than anything else.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah… and now I’m tempted! I enjoy the kind of ‘mood horror’ set in Space – particularly as everyone is uniquely trapped within a ship/station/dome and there doesn’t have to be some complicated plotting to ensure they can’t simply walk out of the door, as happens on Earth:)).

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have this on my TBR and keep getting really tempted to pick it up on Audible. There were a few reviews that soured me on it, but seeing how much you enjoyed it, I’m tempted to push it closer to the top of my list 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yea, I feel like, going by your review, there’s enough for me to enjoy.

        I recently finished something called ‘Polar Vortex’ and the description you just gave of ‘explanation feels a little bit of a letdown but the road up to it is very good’ kind of fits that. So I know I can enjoy that kind of thing.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! Glad you liked it!! I’m definitely in the minority on this one, but it’s something I’m glad to see if it means everyone else really liked it:)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You’d think by now everyone should know to ignore distress calls in space. 🙂 Glad to see you enjoyed this one. It’s certainly one I’d be willing to try.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Answering distress calls from space – what could possibly go wrong? Thinking Alien for example. Great review. Please just stop adding books to my list. No, don’t stop. Arghghggh.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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