Awesome cover, dreadful title. The story itself hovers somewhere in between the two, if, unfortunately, closer to the latter than the former. Fighting and fucking, basically: the SF equivalent of a summer bonkbuster. And it’s a good thing I read it on my holidays, as if I hadn’t I probably wouldn’t have finished it.
It’s all a bit grim though, and not in a ‘gritty and uncompromising that serves to highlight the characters’ rare flashes of humanity’ way, but more of a ‘why should I give a shit about what happens to any of these people?’ way. All that shagging (and there does seem to be a lot, though that’s maybe just a reflection on how long it’s been since I read something with a proper sex scene in it) is just depressing; hate- and pity-fucks abound, but at no point does any character seem to get laid simply for the joy of it. Often it’s just flat-out abusive, so all those sexytimes are resolutely, paradoxically unsexy. The word ‘love’ gets bandied about a lot, but it’s nigh-on impossible to believe that any of these characters are capable of experiencing such a rarified emotion. These are damaged people, clearly, but they and so the book itself have an emotional register that extends from sociopathy to hate to contempt, and having thus seemingly exhausted the available range things then settle into a uniform nihilistic blankness.
The narrative perspective is fairly tight third-person, and we jump around a number of POV characters in a manner which is haphazard to a fault. More damagingly, it’s only in the final act that one of the POV characters is Raena herself, which means that for the first two-thirds of the book the protagonist isn’t, and in being viewed through the lenses of a variety of emotionally stunted individuals she’s objectified remorselessly, and deeply, deeply, problematically (most obviously: she was a slave, her master a sadist so relentless you almost wonder if he’s meant as some kind of joke, and we get plenty of unpleasant insights into their former relationship). While the narrative is well aware of its problematic nature and does make occasional attempts at critique, ultimately it possesses neither the nuance nor the craft to do so in a manner which convincingly rises above perpetuation.
Ethical considerations aside, in terms of storytelling the decision to defer getting into Raena’s head until the final act also means that by the time we do, we’ve also succumbed to the objectification thrust upon her by the other characters, and have a very hard time viewing her as anything approaching a genuine person whose journey is worth investing in. Once more, I should stress that investing in a character or caring about their journey is absolutely not the same as ‘liking’ them, but the bigger bastard a character is, the more skill is necessary to make the reader care about what happens to them; just dropping in the words ‘love’ or ‘revenge’ every couple of chapters doesn’t cut it if every other thing they do leads you to different conclusions.
So why did I keep reading to the end? Well, I had more time on my hands than usual, primarily, but the desultory head-hopping does serve to keep the story moving, and the action sequences are well-constructed. These are pretty sparse early on, disappointingly, but the closing chapters show that Rhoads is well capable of writing a compelling fight-scene and appropriately grandstanding Big Finish. I’d be lying if I said that was enough to justify wading through the first two acts, but seeing as I’ve already put in the hard yards I’ll be keeping half an eye out for reviews of the sequel. It’s never going to be high-literature, and that’s fine, but with more action and less miserable fucking, or alternatively with more even attention to the emotional nuance of the central characters and consistent and convincing character development, this could be a not half-bad series. Sadly, however, I suspect that for many people the early grind through two hundred or so pages where those things are markedly absent will be enough to render any later improvement moot. Plus, given the nearly infinite range of possible choices, you have to question the process which leads to your cynical, hard-bitten, murderous space-pirate captain going by the name of ‘Gavin’.