I received this novel from Titan Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
I was looking forward to the continuation of this series, where the author Gareth Powell portrays a wandering humanity relocated on huge ark-ships by the powerful aliens called Angels of Benevolence. Descendant Machine is not exactly the direct continuation of the first book, Stars and Bones, since it takes place some fifty years after the events depicted there, and as such it can be read as a stand-alone, although I would recommend reading the first volume as well, to better appreciate the nuances of characters and backgrounds. Before delving into my review I would like to share a detail about the writing of this book: in the Afterword, Mr. Powell speaks about the difficult genesis of Descendant Machine, since the first draft was completely lost due to some technical problems, and he had to start again from scratch. Everyone who lost some important file to computers’ quirks understands what kind of blow that must have been, so this book also stands as the proof that no situation is unsurmountable, no matter how dire it looks – and in light of the events that constitute the core of this novel, I wonder how much of this realization went into the crafting of the story itself…
Nicola Mafalda is the pilot of the scout ship Frontier Chic, belonging to the Vanguard – the exploratory arm of the Continuance, the vast fleet of ark ships on which humanity has been forging the vastness of space for the past 125 years. At the start of the novel, Nicola is ferrying passengers to Jzat, a planet inhabited by furry, four-armed humanoids who have been studying for generations a mysterious object orbiting their planet: the Grand Mechanism – the same size as Saturn’s rings, the object has been the source of endless debate about its origins and function, and there is a growing faction on Jzat that’s set on opening the Mechanism to uncover its secrets and, hopefully, reap the rewards that its superior technology might offer.
What started as a pretty routine run ends quite badly for Nicola and the Frontier Chic (I will let you discover how badly on your own…) and when we see her again she’s recuperating from the ordeal on one of the arks: contacted by her superiors, she is sent – not exactly willingly – to look for a Jzat mystic, the Rav’nah Abelisk, the latest in a long line of custodians of the Mechanism’s secrets, to obtain his help in avoiding the disasters that might follow the opening of the construct. Fighting against time and the Jzat faction bent on harnessing the Mechanism’s powers, Nicola faces dangers, betrayals and a threat to the end of the universe as we know it, in a non-stop, enthralling story whose stakes keep mounting from one chapter to the next.
Descendant Machine is written in alternating POV chapters belonging respectively to Nicola Mafalda, to the Frontier Chic’s envoy (envoys are the ships’ avatars) and to Orlando Walden, a young, bright scientist whose letters to his lover Ramona are a delightful mix of purple prose and self-centeredness. This narrative choice keeps the novel moving along at a swift pace, turning it into a compulsive read once the pieces are all set on the board and the action rolls on with unstoppable momentum, without however forgetting a good number of well-placed sparkles of humor and a few forays into emotions that feel natural and organically developed and contribute to the excellent narrative balance of this story.
I enjoyed Nicola’s portrayal very much: she possesses a delightfully snarky disposition that does not shy away from a consistent use of profanity, but which also hides the self-doubt and vulnerabilities that round up her character into a very relatable one. If she can be all business when performing her tasks, it’s in her dealings with the Chic’s envoy that we are able to see the real Nicola: here lies one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, because we learn that Vanguard’s navigators and their envoys are somewhat mentally linked to better travel the intricacies of the Substrate (or hyperspace), and therefore share a bond that is as deep as it is unique. The voice of the Chic’s envoy is an equal mixture of intelligence, humor and shrewdness that works as the perfect foil for Nicola’s prickly attitude and the exchanges between the two of them are among my favorite sections of the book, particularly where the undeniable affection underlying their relationship comes to the fore.
The chapters devoted to Orlando Walden are of a very different nature for two reasons: on one side they explore his personality through the impassioned letters sent to Ramona, his love for her expressed in a flowery and childish way that’s quite funny; on the other they afford readers a peek into the mindset of the Openers – the faction set on uncovering the Mechanism’s secrets – and in particular of their leader Aulco, whose speeches pave the road for some humorous pokes at the sectarian kinds of politics we have seen crop up in recent years.
Narratively speaking, Descendant Machine enjoys a lighter tone in respect of its predecessor, even though it does not lack for drama or the levels of tension that accompany the possibility of seeing the universe as we know it vanish in a puff of smoke – from my point of view, it’s space opera of the most gratifying kind, where alongside the more adventurous themes you will find deeper considerations about life and death, love and friendship, the strength to accept one’s end for a higher purpose, and much more. Once again I can rest assured that Mr. Powell is very comfortable in this genre, as well as skilled, and that I will welcome every new book of his with great expectations.
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