March 21, 2024

Review: The Fractured Dark

The Fractured Dark The Fractured Dark by Megan E. O'Keefe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second volume in the Devoured Worlds space opera series, a sprawling saga of (possibly) intelligent fungi, body printing, mind-mapping, and two complicated, damaged characters who nevertheless manage to find each other.

In this future, Earth is being devoured by the shroud, an alien lichen. Desperate for a home for its people, the rulers of MERIT, the five families that control all future technology, are searching out habitable worlds. But these worlds, called Cradles, are being taken over by the shroud as well. In the first book, we discovered that the shroud is being used to combat a mind-controlling fungus called canus. Canus is used to purify relkatite, the mineral nearly all technology depends upon (including the pivotal technologies of body printing and mind uploading/downloading, which takes up a large portion of this book).

Our two protagonists, Naira Sharp and Tarquin Mercator, found out in the last book that canus is in nearly everyone's "pathways" (the relkatite-based body modifications present in printed bodies) and it is slowly, inexorably taking over the human race. Along the way Naira, a former highly trained bodyguard, and Tarquin, the heir to the Mercator family, fall in love. But at the end of the first book Naira sacrificed herself to prevent canus from spreading, and she was reprinted and uploaded without her last few months of memories, including her feelings for Tarquin.

In this book Naira and Tarquin take the fight to canus, trying either to eradicate it or find an uncorrupted new planet for humans to occupy. The story picks up months later as the fight continues and Naira struggles to adjust to her new body and the shadow of what she had with Tarquin. This book is pretty plot-heavy with plenty of twists. Here, however, the romance is ramped up a bit. The thing I really appreciated about the romance was that it is an adult relationship, with actual meaningful conversations:

This was different. This was deliberate. The start of something hopefully long-lasting, in an environment without the pressures of immediate peril. Once again, she was pushing him to reach for her fire, even if it might burn.

He adored her for that, though he'd keep the depth of his feelings to himself.

"Are you certain?" He half expected her to vanish on the spot and for this to have all been yet another dream. "I'm not interested in something casual."

"I know. I'm not sure of anything these days, but I want to try."

After reading many so-called "romances" where the conflicts between the couple could be solved by just sitting down and talking, you don't know how refreshing this is.

The main technology used here, mind uploading and body printing, is quite thought-provoking, although the ramifications are not really dealt with in this story as the plot does not have the room. For this future, this is an accepted, everyday technology, just as the cell phone is to us. But I couldn't help but wonder: when a new body is printed, is it not conscious and aware until the mapped mind is uploaded? What happens if a newly printed body awakens before then? (This might come into play with the "misprints" of the previous book, which are similar to zombies, only they were controlled by the canus fungus.) This tech would also revolutionize society, as anyone can upload into any body they please (although your mind-mapping will take only so many prints and uploads) and in fact Tarquin is apparently trans--assigned female at birth and now printing into male bodies.

But if you are "double-printed" (another body printed and uploaded before the first one dies) your mind starts to fracture (hence the book's title). This happens to our protagonist Naira at the climax and the result is a race against time for her to save the day before she spirals into permanent insanity.

There's also an interesting plot thread being thrown down, in keeping with the series' running themes of identity and personhood, that I hope will be explored in the final book:

"What if the AIs, after they're infected with canus, what if they do understand?" she [Naira] asked. "What if they're not input-output machines after that? This is important, Kav, because if the AIs learn a sense of self from canus, then that means canus has a sense of self to teach the ship. That means we're not fighting something like a pathogen. We're eradicating an entire sentient species."

This book is a bit more convoluted than the first, as that volume was largely confined to one planet and this takes place on several stations and ships. The excellent characterization and pacing hold true for this book, however, and this series is rapidly becoming one of my favorites of recent years.

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