My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I liked this, but it's got some flaws, and unfortunately the biggest one is with the alien antagonists (sort of; later revealed to be not so much the aggressor as the victim).
You could pretty much subtitle this Corporate Corruption in Space, which is indicative of how cliched the "corporate malfeasance" storyline is getting. After humanity reaches the stars, there are no governments, just competing corporations eager to exploit and kill for profits and market share. This naturally results in a serious state of inequality and a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. In this case, the "haves" are born or granted citizenship with all its privileges, and the "have-nots" are the indentures who work decades to lift themselves out of the gutter and end up little more than fancily-named slaves. Our protagonist, Ashlan Jackson, is an indenture working for the Aurora Company as a pilot aboard a salvage ship. She and her crew are salvaging bodies, scrap and alien ordnance from the warship London after a battle between the company and the mysterious alien Vai, when Ash discovers something that is far more than she bargained for.
Ash has a complicated past as well, and a dead fiance on the mining planet Bittersweet. She is a victim of (what she thinks is) celestium poisoning, a terminal illness she is determined to hide long enough to earn her citizenship (because with citizenship comes the ability to pay for medical care). There's a neat little mystery about her past that folds nicely into the overall plot. Oh yeah, and she's in love with her captain, Kate Keller, who is holding her at arm's length because of her position.
All well and good. The characterization is fine--not outstanding, but adequate--and the pacing rolls steadily along, not quite breakneck but not dragging either. Most of the book is from Ashlan's POV, but several chapters showcasing Kate Keller provide a nice counterpoint.
However...the worldbuilding around the alien Vai is pretty much the make-or-break for this book, and some of it is...broken. The Vai are a hivemind machine race, sapient alien nanotech that grows organic bodies as "nodes" to build and colonize, and their clash with humans come when they don't realize that humans are individuals, and furthermore that humans can die. This is important enough that it's a tagline on the book's cover: They Didn't Know We Could Die, and the Vai lament that humans have taught them the meaning of pain and death. And I'm thinking, really? I can imagine the nanomachines themselves not dying, but their genetically engineered bodies/organic transport devices don't age and die, or even succumb to accidents in space? Especially since a family line is on its way to colonize another planet when the Vai first encounter humans. That is simply not plausible, and it's such a large plot point that it's hard to overlook. For me, this dragged down the latter third of the book, despite some exciting space battles and breathless escapes, and Ash's reuniting with Kate Keller.
I think this book is very ambitious, and I commend the author for casting her net so wide with her debut novel. This world and series can potentially be really good if these issues are addressed.
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