Read: February 20 – 23, 2016
It’s both overly-simplistic and inaccurate to describe Steal the Sky as The Gentlemen Bastards in the Firefly ‘Verse. But it’s not completely wrong.
I’m not sure I can defend that, but I tell you this: read the book and you’ll probably agree. I’m going to try to reference those other works as little as I can, because the book is more than just a combination of their DNA, but I’m going to have to a couple of times. There’s also a smattering of Steampunk-ish elements, some Epic Fantasy-like things, and a dash of The Stainless Steel Rat. You know how Data downplayed his violin playing as a combination of all those various artists, and Picard and Crusher (I think it was her, anyway) telling him that he’s the one who took all those various characteristics and made it his own? That’s what O’Keefe did here, and I hate to minimize what she did by just referencing these other works — but in the interest of brevity, you pretty much have to. I, frankly can’t wait to see in future books what other ingredients she puts in her secret sauce.
But before then, we have to step onto the Scorch, an unforgiving continent, to be sure.
What is it with SF novels and mining? Everywhere I turn lately, there are people slaving away (literally) in mines — Pierce Brown’s Darrow (and the rest of the Reds); almost everyone on Josi Russel’s Minea; and countless people in Aransa and the rest of the Scorched Continent. Really, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder’s descendants digging for spaceship fuel next year on FX. One reason that you see them everywhere is that it’s really effective — you read “miner” and you see poor workers, toiling in unsafe conditions, who are very likely being taken advantage of. If that’s not grounds for compelling drama, well — did you not get where Katniss Everdeen was from?
Like on Minea, there’s a special kind of person who can find the precious resource, called Sel. Sel-sensitives — no matter what their social class, family, or other abilities — go work in the mines (well, a very few become pilots). They can find Sel, they can manipulate Sel, they are the key to getting it out of the planet and into their ships (as an aside, Sel seems to be somewhat renewable, which is nice). The last things the government wants is turmoil — and the thing they want most are Sel-sensitives who can do more than get Sel out of the ground.
The Scorched Continent looks and acts like something from the Old West (at least as we know it from movies, TV, etc.) small communities, mostly poor, with some nobility with a lot of on the “have” side of the equation. Which is where Detan Honding comes in — he’s the black sheep of the oldest of the noble houses, a small-time con man staying one step above starvation and another step ahead of the law (I’m about to break into “Street Rat” from Aladdin, so I’m going to stop). Along for the ride is his long-suffering ship’s pilot, friend, and resident voice of reason (probably the only one who keeps him from getting carried away), Tibs.
The two find themselves in Aransa, a larger city with a big mine. Detan and Tibs are known in some quarters of the city, most notably by the Captain of the Watch, Ripke Leshe, who wants them out of town. But has a unique business proposal first . . .
This is getting too long — let’s leave things there, with some people left for you to meet. And you want to, trust me. Including the villains — both petty and Big Bads (especially the Bigger Bads that you don’t think of that way at first).
O’Keefe has created a great world, with a robust culture, a specialized vocabulary, its own technology, politics and whatnot. There’s a whole invaders taking exploiting indigenous/traditional cultures thing that’s also going on — but O’Keefe doesn’t spend too much time on it, just gives us a quick glance of that — but it looks like future books will explore this more. So I’ll just leave it there, but I’m pretty curious about the whole thing. Speaking of local customs — anytime people talk about Walking the Black — put aside anything you may be snacking on.
Now, since I (and many others) have invoked The Gentlemen Bastards and Firefly, I should say that both of those have a sense of fun — a sense of play — that’s really not that present in Steal the Sky. You get the impression that maybe (probably) whatever happened before this did, though. This book is mostly like the part of Lynch’s work where play time is over and Locke is going for vengeance, not just a payday. Which is not to say that isn’t fun — there are plenty of laughs, jokes, witty rejoinders and whatnot — I’d love to quote some, but the amount of context it’d take for the you to get the joke would kill this. This novel doesn’t have the joie de vivre that the other works do, but it could.
One more Firefly reference and I’m done — towards the end, when things look pretty dire for some of our characters — you get the impression that O’Keefe spent a lot of time wondering just what happened to River while at The Academy, and a few people here would probably find themselves capable of swapping notes with Ms. Tam.
There’s excitement, piracy, politics, thievery, general mischief, subterfuge, revenge, friendship, loyalty in this story — told in a great world, with hints of more worlds to come (as well as more to learn about this one). People are going to be talking about this one for a while, I think. I am, at least.