August 13, 2023

Review: The Scourge Between Stars

The Scourge Between Stars The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I know "split personality" isn't really a thing for people, but such an appellation definitely applies to this book. It owes a heavy debt to Alien, of course; it could easily be described as "Xenomorphs aboard a generation ship." Said generation ship--or ships--there's an entire fleet returning from a failed colony on Proxima B, trying to limp their way back to Earth--is infected by native Proxima life, which could be described as Xenomorphs with crab claws and shells who like to snack on human organs. They can also hibernate for decades, and do just that, in the generation ships' food storage silos. When they finally awaken, they promptly start running amuck and killing people, until the brave first mate of the Calypso, Jacklyn Albright, manages to take them down.

Just writing it out like that makes it sound rather cliched and derivative, doesn't it? It really isn't. This is a novella, which is a perfect length for the story; stretch it out to a novel, and I don't think it would have worked. But the novella format provides just enough room to establish the characters and atmosphere--the Calypso and the other ships of the returning flotilla have many more problems than the aliens, at first: their ships are breaking down, the math of interstellar travel isn't working, Jacklyn doesn't think her ship and its six thousand inhabitants will survive the return trip to Earth, and there is growing unrest and rebellion onboard the Calypso. The ship has been subject to what is called "engagements," which is attacks from invisible outside enemies that breach the hull and shear off parts of the vessel, all of which is taking place before the Centauri, as the aliens come to be known, awaken and go on the prowl.

When this happens, the plot shifts into high gear, and the pacing becomes relentless. Jacklyn is as much of a badass as Ripley, and fights the Xeno-crabs to a standstill, finally putting on a suit, deliberately breaching the hull, and ejecting them into space. If the book had only ended there, even though we wouldn't have known if the flotilla made it back to Earth, the story would have been well served. But this, unfortunately, is where the split-personality part comes in. The other part of the plot, the part hinted at by the "engagements," as well as the strange android Watson who seems to have some link with whatever is causing them, comes to the fore after the elimination of the aliens...and proves to be a wholly unnecessary, mystical dea ex machina that damn near had me throwing the book against the wall. It also all but ruined the suspenseful rocket ride that had come before.

On one level, I get it. The author had pretty much written themself into a corner by making the situation so bleak to begin with (Jacklyn's last desperate order to get the ship away from the Centauri led to them draining all their power and becoming adrift). But for crying out loud, don't resort to some quasi-magical solution out of left field to rescue your characters. This made the ending deeply unsatisfying, at least for me. Which is a shame, as the most of the book showed a good grasp of atmosphere, pacing and character. This is the author's debut, so I can grant them some leeway, but this will have the unfortunate effect of me approaching any further books with more than a little skepticism.

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