Monday, May 11, 2015

Dark Run - Mike Brooks

Dark Run is a feisty space opera, with a layer of grit overlaying a much larger sense of charm. 

It’s set in what feels like a not-intolerably distant future, after the discovery of faster-than-light drive has sent humankind on a diaspora to the stars. As a result, we’re shown a rather large variety of different locations in the universe. There’s half-terraformed worlds, where air is rationed, and everyone lives under a dome, or under several thick feet of rock – a feeling of claustrophobia is evoked, characters and reader always seeming to watch their heads – and their backs. 

In a stark contrast to that setting, there’s Earth, now more of a tourist destination and government centre. There’s allusions to ongoing low level conflicts between various political blocs across human-occupied space, but all the politicking still seems to happen on Earth. The impression is one of marble halls and closeted power cliques. Outside of these, there’s a whole swathe of other locations – frozen asteroids, grimy and glitzy spaceports, and more than a few spacecraft. 

What really stands out though is that each location feels different. They’re not just one-note places, but feel like fully realised parts of a larger ecosystem implied within the prose. The locations are matched by the somewhat vague backgrounds presented by the characters within it – we learn scraps about the setting through dialogue, through casual asides, from internal monologues and reminiscences. It’s never used to beat the reader over the head, but the feeling is one of a living world, one with some of the shine knocked off, one not too unlike our own – and that feeling makes it very easy to invest in the setting, and the characters within it.

The characters are also quite well done. The narrative focus is on the wonderfully named starship captain Ichabod Drift, and his merry crew of misfits. Even as the text opens, it’s clear they’re a modestly amoral bunch of smugglers, runaways, and people with something to hide, taking on whichever job happens to pay well, without much regard for legality. The basic trope has been done before (most notably by Firefly), but the author manages to breathe new life into it with Ichabod Drift. The captain is a smooth talking charmer who would much rather talk his way out of trouble than get into a shootout – amusingly, this exact trait also seems rather likely to get him into trouble. Much like the rest of the crew, he has a past he doesn’t want to talk about, at least as the book begins, but he makes for an engaging and amusing protagonist, one whose sensibly cynical and wry look onto the world made me chuckle, and was very easy to read.

The rest of the crew are perhaps not served quite as well, though some more than others. There’s the peppy ingénue of a hacker, the grim faced stoic gun-arms, the pilot, and the engineer. One of the gun-hands is a towering Maori, and he manages to grab a fair bit of screen time, and actually provides the most in-depth explanation of his own character in a scene which is both perfectly pitched and curiously affecting. The hacker also gets some room, growing a few calluses over her moral centre through the course of the book; that said, the remainder of the crew are perfectly enjoyable on a surface level – there’s some excellent repartee, and the author manages to wrap the entire crew up in a sense of camaraderie – but it would have been nice to get to know them better On the other hand, this is a book where ones past is jealously guarded – so perhaps we’ll see that deeper exploration of the rest of the cast in following books.

From a plot point of view, the narrative starts with a bang, and, if I’m honest, doesn’t really let up thereafter. There’s a real sense of pressure, of time limits, impressed on the characters by the narrative – and as they race against time, the reader is pulled along with them. As is ever the case, what starts off as a simple delivery job quickly spirals out of control and becomes something else entirely. I do have some complaints – there’s a few coincidences in the last third or so of the book which seemed a touch implausible, and the dénouement doesn’t seem to quite gel with the rest of the text – but it’s a snappy story, and one which left me turning pages in an effort to see what was going to happen next. 

Overall then, Dark Run is a solid entry in the space opera field; it has a setting with a feeling of depth, which I’d love to see more of. Characters which, when given room to show themselves off, are fascinating, and are believable and entertaining otherwise; and a story which rockets from drama to drama, leaving the reader breathless. At the end of the day, it’s a lot of fun, and as such, worth reading.

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