Dead Space by Kali Wallace
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kali Wallace's first novel, Salvation Day, was published in 2019 and kind of flew under the radar a bit. I really liked it. Now she's back with her second novel, an unrelated story along the same general lines--a science fiction mystery/thriller with a bit of horror. Although there's no aliens this time, unless you consider artificial intelligence to be alien (which, to be fair, is a reasonable position to take). This book is more or less a standalone, although a sequel could certainly be written. But this storyline is self-contained, which is kind of nice in these days of endless fat trilogies.
Our protagonist, Hester Marley, is a Safety Officer for the Operational Security Department of Parthenope Enterprises, a nasty system-wide corporation of the immensely powerful, exploitative type that, frankly, is on its way to becoming a cliche. Which is my only reservation about this plot, because it's been done so many times before. Hester is in immense medical debt to Parthenope--in her previous life she was an AI expert aboard the Symposium, a research ship on its way to Titan that was blown up by anti-expansion terrorists. As one of the few survivors, picked up by Parthenope ships and patched up by Parthenope doctors, she lost one arm, leg, eye and ear, replaced by prosthetics, and was saddled with such a crushing amount of debt that she was forced to sign an employment contract (that pretty much amounts to indentured servitude, as far as I could tell) with Parthenope until she earned her way out of it. Now she lives on the asteroid Hygiea, searching out criminals and malcontents and making them vanish before they impact the company's profits.
One evening she is contacted out of the blue by David Prussenko, a former head robotics engineer and fellow colleague and survivor of the Symposium disaster. David is also working (forcibly) for Parthenope, on another nearby asteroid, Nimue, that the company is using to build a massive ore-processing furnace. His message is disjointed and cryptic, and disturbs Hester enough that she is determined to answer it and help him with whatever trouble he has gotten himself into. But the next day, as she is scrolling through the feeds to find her next assignment, a "suspicious death" comes up on the list--with a victim name of David Prussenko.
This book is the story of Hester's quest to solve her friend's murder, but it also delves into Hester's past, specifically her work with the Titan Research Project aboard Symposium. Without spoiling too much, I'll just say that what she built to assist the project, what she thought had been destroyed along with the Symposium, turns out to be not quite dead after all. Along the way, she discovers what happened to David, and faces down her own demons from the Symposium disaster.
What struck me most while I was reading this book was its excellent sense of pace. We get a few necessary flashbacks to set the stage and add to Hester's and David's characterizations, but the story progresses steadily, with the clues fairly doled out. Sometimes with thrillers like these it seems like the author is trying to cram all the action into the final third of the book, and the story and characters suffer as a result. That isn't the case here. The plot reveals, along with the overall sense of dread, come gradually but steadily, and the tiny atmospheric details of living on an asteroid seem to be right, at least to this layperson. There's one great scene where Hester is finally forced to go outside, and as she walks across the asteroid's surface in her vacuum suit and "gecko boots"--the footgear this universe uses to keep from flying off into the void--she makes the mistake of looking up.
Above the dull grey surface of Nimue was the darkness that wasn't sky because there was no sky here, speckled with lights so small and so distant they might have been motes of dust, and the great size of the darkness, the crushing cold of it, it hit me with a wave of vertigo so strong I felt it as a physical blow, as though the asteroid was tumbling beneath my feet, the tracks bucking. I turned, dizzy, and sank to my knees, accidentally missing the edge of the track and plunged my right hand several centimeters down to the surface instead.
I squeezed my eyes shut, twisted in that awkward position, willing the vertigo away. My stomach was churning and my heart was pounding, and I felt suddenly, painfully hot all over, sticky and prickling and so feverish it was frightening. I shifted, thinking I ought to stand, but the surface of Nimue was soft, not solid rock, and my hand only sank deeper when I moved. I leaned to the left, clutched at the metal track with my metal fingers until I had a seam to grip, and pulled myself upright again.
I don't often see a physical reaction to being in space like this. It's good stuff.
The mystery was resolved to my satisfaction, and a final plot twist in the last two pages got a cackle of delight out of me. This book definitely shows the author's growth--she has a sure hand with both her story and characters. I'm thinking she has now moved to my "order on sight" list.
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