Chaos Vector is the second book in Megan O’Keefe’s Protectorate series. I’ve been a fan of O’Keefe’s work for ages, and really enjoyed Velocity Weapon, the first in this sci-fi series, so hopes were high on this one. And it definitely delivers. There’s a lot of entertaining, high-concept sci-fi in there - from pieces of jump-gate plans living inside people’s skulls, to gunships coasting between the stars, to off-the grid research stations trying to find their way around the technological restrictions of humanity’s interstellar government, and well, all sorts of dark secrets that I won’t speak about for the sake of spoilers. But underneath that, this is a story about people, and relationships. That said, there’s an absolute cracker of a story here too, as those characters investigate old mysteries, are caught up in new conspiracies, and kick some serious arse.
The universe...well, it’s one where a brewing system-wide war is (at least nominally) over. But there’s still a question of how to handle the aftermath. We mostly see one side of this - a space filled with diplomats and crisis management, and a sense of underlying tension in everything that gets done. There’s a ticking clock here, as the survivors on both sides try and work out how to keep everyone alive. We also get to see more from the mysterious Keepers. They handle most of the governance for the system(and, indeed, outside it), each carrying around part of the knowledge needed to construct the gates that let humanity move between the stars. One of our protagonists is now firmly embedded in the Keepers, and finding his ideals, his idea of what the group should be, running on the rocks of what it actually is. Partly this is because of the drive of organisations to perpetuate themselves, and partly...other factors. There are some sections of the story which draw us back into the past, looking at the formation of the Keepers, the construction of the Gates, and how humanity was shaped into the society we’re seeing in the rest of the story - and both the older organisation, striving for survival with both vitality and appalling ruthlessness, and the “current” one are fascinating, believable, compelling and, occasionally, horrifying. This is a story which shows us systems and societies as a means of challenging both their internal assumptions, and those of the reader. From orbital habitats run by clandestine researchers, to the military arm of the Keepers, and over to nefarious, high-stakes band of assassins-slash-retrieval specialists, there’s a diversity and depth to the social structures, providing a rich and imaginative playground for our characters to, well, make a mess of.
On which note: Sanda and Biran are back! They both carry on their viewpoints from the previous book, and both are an absolute joy. Sanda is in full take-no-prisoners mode, running on adrenaline, kicking arse and taking names. But in between those moments where she shakes things until they come loose, there are quieter periods of reflection> Sanda is trying to work out who she is now, struggling with internalising her role as a public heroine with her own desire to do her job, quietly, efficiently and with as little fuss as possible. At the same time, she has the sense of moral purpose, clarity and strength of personality to drive forward, to search out truth, try and understand things, and to change them for the better. Sanda is being put into a constructed role, true enough, but she is managing to embody the principles behind that role regardless, even as she struggles to define herself, rather than be defined by others. Sanda...ah, she’s complicated, in the best way. Her relationship with her family - warmly affectionate with her parents, and her brother - is a genuine high point. Her self-doubts, conflicts and desire to be better are easy to empathise with, and make her both sympathetic and more human. And Sanda is agonisingly, wonderfully human; a person who could step off the page and have a drink and a chat with you, and that’s a fact.
Biran is equally intriguing. Now fully immersed in Keeperdom, he’s a charmer, a fast-talker, and slowly, slowly getting to grips with the levers of power. If he’s an idealist, still, that’s wonderful - but the tarnish is there, as he tried to leverage a system which doesn’t want to be useful to do what he requires of it. His love for Sanda is clear and comforting, and helps keep him grounded. Still, Biran seems fit to survive and thrive in the cutthroat world of Keeper politics. His caution, and willingness to internalise struggles whilst displaying another face to the world, is by turns impressive and troubling. Still, as someone trying to do the right thing, despite his flaws, Biran is great fun to travel alongside.
They’re surrounded by a truly fantastic supporting cast, including some complex, believable, and occasionally downright appalling antagonists. In all cases, though, there are no caricatures. Each of our (probable) heroes and (possible) villains has their own agenda, their own needs and drives, which make them feel real, and alive. We may not agree with their choices - vehemently so, even - but can see where they’re coming from. They have a depth and integrity that makes them concretely, believably real.
And the story...well, this one’s a doozy. I don’t want to go into any detail, because the twists, the reveals, the turn-on-a-dime gasp of surprise, well, they’re all here, and I won’t be the one to ruin it for you. But this is a tightly plotted narrative, winding up tension and clicking down to the denouement with beautiful precision. It’s a story which is happy to lead you up the metaphorical garden path, and then behind the metaphorical woodshed, where you’ll run into some metaphorical muggers. What I thought was going on...well, it often was, but the reasons why, and the context of those reasons, were liable to change, to revelation, to differences in points of view and clarity. This is a book which made me say”No way..” a lot. It’s a really interesting story, in any case - talking about the stories we tell ourselves personally, and as a society; the way sometimes those stories are lies, and the way that sometimes they also reveal more hidden truths. About what humanity is, what it tells itself it is, and what it can be. About the need for regular people to be decent, and about the price we can be willing to pay to reach our goals. Some of this story is captured in the marvellous, sometimes searingly emotional character work, but it’s also there in the questions the story asks of us, and the answers it (sometimes) provides.
This is a very clever book, asking interesting questions, showing us people at their best and worst, in a world which is not only rich and imaginative, but feels wonderfully real. It’s a top-notch sequel, and highly, highly recommended.