Dashing vicariously across the galaxy at literally the speed of light with a protagonist has to be one of the great pleasures of reading a great soap operatic sci-fi novel.
Against a backdrop of an impossibly vast and dispersed empire or idealistic groupings of planets, our hero (woman, man alien or non-gender identifying) races to outwit and outpace baddies, usually innumerable, all in pursuit of some noble goal, whether it be saving the galaxy from civilisation-ending immolation or seeking justice for themselves or someone they love.
There aren’t usually that many variations on a theme, which is why Dominic Dulley’s Shattermoon is such a refreshing read, introducing us to Orry (short for Aurelia) Kent, her brother Ethan and her dad Eoin, a family of con artists who get their Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and, well, not entirely Robin Hood-then, giving to themselves who, as is the way of novels of this ilk, get into trouble pretty much immediately.
When a sting on Konstantin, the grandson of the Count of Delf, one of the aristocratic Ruuz who rule over the human Ascendancy with a mix of medieval imperial arrogance, ruthless efficiency and bloated indulgence, goes wrong, Orry, a bright, independent 20-year-old woman of considerable intelligence, wit and charm, she finds herself on the run across the galaxy, accused of a murder she didn’t commit by a ruling apparatus that is ruthless used to getting what it wants.
“The press of sweating bodies crammed into the ballroom made for an oppressive atmosphere. Musky perfumes and pungent local spices caught in Orry Kent’s throat as she gazed longingly at the open doors to the balcony. Beyond them, Tyr’s bloated yellow sun hung low on the horizon, reflected perfectly in the still waters of an artificial lake set in landscaped grounds. After more than a week planetside, Orry had adjusted to the lower-than-standard gravity, but she still couldn’t get used to the heat.” (P. 1)
Separated from her close-knit family – one of the truly enjoyable parts of the book is the way Dulley gives us a sense of how much the family love and depend on each other, and yet how like most families, they are pretty to dysfunctional tendencies too – Orry realises that the pendant she took from Konstantin is not just some ordinary though prohibitively expensive trinket but the key to something so important and valuable than all kinds of people want her and the pendant back … and quickly.
But what’s a woman to do when her spaceship is taken, all her resources and familial support are stripped from her and she is left essentially holding onto the pendant and the clothes she is wearing?
You have to hope that someone will come to your aid; not, however, someone like Jurgen Mender, a crusty old man who’s lost everyone, isn’t happy that he’s forced to scoop an ailing Orry up from the frigid depths of space and would rather be left to his own devices, thank you.
It’s the ideal match, an Odd Couple of sci-fi if ever there was one but Orry and Jurgen do eventually forge a connection, forming a “family” of sorts with runaway aristocrat Harry (from the planet Alecto) and together pushing back against the might of the Ascendancy military and police forces who, in common with many stories like this, are too dumb to understand that there’s a great big fat conspiracy in play.
Throw in the militaristic Kadirans, who make the Klingons look like life-affirming Care Bears, and you have a brilliant recipe for one of those rip-roaring space operas that don’t pause for breath and leave you gasping with thrilled excitement right until the very end.
What sets Shattermoon rather considerably apart from the rather trope-heavy pack is that Dulley invests his brilliantly-imaginative, utterly-immersive tale, with richly-vibrant characters, a plot that has real stakes, and an emotional centre that always feels authentic and never melodramatically in service to the narrative.
In other words, this is sci-fi tale with a lot of familiar moving pieces that never once feels even remotely familiar.
Sure many of the parts are people, things or mechanisms you’ve seen before, but Dullet uses them inventively and with inspired freshness, much of it driven by the fact that Orry is such a stupendously-engaging likable characters.
No matter what she’s thrown into, and there are pretty incredible scrapes from which she has to extricate herself and threats she must face up to, Orry faces up to them, often full of fear and trepidation like anyone with a health respect for their mortality, but with tremendous ability and intelligence, often besting the men around her.
“Orry’s muscles tensed as adrenalin coursed through her system, instantly clearing her head. She pressed her back against the freight lock door and flattened her palms against Dainty Jane‘s cool hull, ready to push off and start running – when the door soundlessly slid open and she feel backwards into the airlock with a cry. before she could pick herself up, the door closed in front of her.
I’m safe … Relief left her heart thumping.” (P. 201)
She is also inherently likable, with Dulley neatly avoiding the trap of making his highly-capable protagonist either ridiculously, laughably bulletproof, emotionally austere or less-than-human.
Orry is the perfect protagonist and through her we are served up a heady race to save the world from a pretty epic threat, one which will have dire consequences for the young con woman, her family, both old and recently-acquired, and humanity at large.
Shattermoon also benefits from a willingness to place its characters in real, peril and danger.
There’s more than one occasion where you ponder whether anyone will actually come out alive, and though rationally you know they, or at least some of them have to or it will be an exceptionally-short book, there is sufficient tension and danger to keep the blood pumping and for you to be perched, figuratively or otherwise, on the edge of your seat.
This is epic space opera that has a 1950s cinema serial quality to it, people by characters you give a damn about, worlds that feel as real as your daily commute (but obviously far more exotic and yet grounded) and a story that is so engrossing that reaching the end of it is akin to feeling like someone has unceremoniously slammed on the brakes and stopped a runaway tale that you could have happily stayed involved in forever.
Thankfully there is a sequel in the offing, Morhelion, due in just a month or so, and once you’ve had a taste of heady adrenaline of Shattermoon, step back onboard the Dominic Dulley storytelling express won’t take any convincing at all.