The Blighted Stars by Megan E. O'Keefe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is following the recent trend (somewhat) of "sentient-fungi-zombie-invasion" (see: The Last of Us) but it is also very much its own thing. It has meticulous worldbuilding and excellent depth of characterization, and is just an all-around damn good story.
In the far future, Earth is in the process of being overwhelmed by "the shroud," an invasive, plant-destroying lichen that cannot be killed or eradicated. The five ruling corporate families in this future, known collectively as MERIT, are attempting to build orbiting stations and find habitable planets for the population to escape to. These planets are known as "Cradles," and the story opens with the first of our main viewpoint charcters, the heir to the Mercator dynasty Tarquin, riding the starship the Amaranth to survey one of the newest Earthlike worlds, Sixth Cradle. Several of the previous Cradles have been contaminated by the shroud, and the Mercators are attempting to find both Earth-like worlds and planets that have stores of the mineral relkatite, a MacGuffin of sorts that is used to manufacture warpcore containment and several other things that this universe's technology is built upon.
But Sixth Cradle is already contaminated by the shroud and dying, and as the Amaranth arrives it is fired upon by its sister starship the Einkhorn. Tarquin escapes with the captain and several others in a shuttle that lands on the planet's surface. Among those others is his "exemplar," Lockhart, a dedicated bodyguard to protect him. But Lockhart is not who she seems....she is actually Naira Sharp, a "Conservator" (anarchist/revolutionary/terrorist depending on your point of view) who is convinced that the Mercator family is behind the shroud that is destroying worlds. She has come to destroy this expedition and save Sixth Cradle, but she is too late.
There are several technologies in this world that play an important role in the plot, especially the dual conceits of "neural maps" and "printing"--that is, digitizing one's memories and consciousness, storing it, and downloading it in a newly printed body after the previous one's death or in this case, after arriving at one's interstellar destination. Of course, this brings up all sorts of questions: namely, are the newly printed bodies just shells awaiting a download or actual people? ("Misprints" also play a prominent role in the story.) And when your current printed body dies and your memories and map is "cast back" to its main storage by way of quantum entanglement, is that still you or just a copy of a copy of a copy? (The story seems to be split on this, as Naira Sharp dies towards the end of the book without a chance to download. When she is printed again, she is without the relevant memories and is depicted as a different, separate person. The reason this is not presented as functional immortality is that a neural map can only handle a certain amount of downloads before it "cracks.") There is also the Mercator family's secret to mining and processing relkatite: they use an alien fungus, Mercatus canus, discovered on the crust of Venus that bioleaches and purifies the mineral. (When I read that, I thought, "And nothing can go wrong there....")
Now stranded on the surface of Sixth Cradle, Naira and Tarquin, mortal enemies (at least from Naira's point of view) must work together to solve the mystery of the shroud and what is happening to inhabitable worlds, and how the Mercator family ties in to all of it. What they discover has profound ramifications and threatens the survival of humanity itself.
These characters are drawn very well, but Tarquin Mercator undergoes the best character arc. His entire worldview is upended as he discovers what his father Acaelus has done, both to Naira and to humanity. The plot unfolds with many twists and turns, but because the story as a whole is so well paced (rapid-fire action interspersed with deepening characterization) the book's 483 pages never sag. There is also the beginning of a romance between Tarquin and Naira, but it never overwhelms the SF elements of the story.
I just loved this book. It's fat and twisty and complex, but there's not a wasted scene or moment. It's the first of a trilogy (of course) and I can't wait for the next.
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