Sunday, January 9, 2011

Review: Darkship Thieves by Sarah A Hoyt

Author: Sarah A. Hoyt
Series: Darkship Saga 1
Grade: A-

Athena "Thena" Sinistra is the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the 24th century, one of the ruling oligarchs.  Notorious for rebelling against her fate as a smiling, demure broodmare, she's been kicked out of every military school and insane asylum her father could find.  So when one of her father's bodyguards breaks into her cabin in the middle of the night, it isn't hard for her to get away and steal an escape pod.  It's just her luck she crashes into a darkship stealing from Earth's energy supplies.  Good luck or bad remains to be seen; the catlike pilot Christopher "Kit" Klaavil is just as triggerhappy as she is, but Thena's going to need allies if she wants to find out what's really going on with her father.

For me, this book was an illustration of the selling power of an excerpt.  I read the first chapter of this book on another author's blog last January, a full year ago.  One line stuck out to me: "But even I couldn't have everything.  Where would I put it?  Who would polish it?"  That line worked for me on so many levels: the sarcastic humor, the subversion of taking an expected metaphor and interpreting it unexpectedly literally, the resignation about philosophical matters while being pursued by unknown dangers and the implicitly high opinion of herself ("even I couldn't...").  When looking over my to-buy list, I'd forget why I'd put some of the titles on there, but never Darkship Thieves: that's the one with the sarcastic badass chick.

Thena is a kickass woman.  The cover does her no justice.  Depending on your biases, you might see an angel descending from the heavens or yet another naked sci-fi bimbo.  Virtuous and serene, Thena is not.  And while she does start the book in a torn nightie, it's as a mockery of the horror movie cliche.  Most slasher flick bimbos do not strangle attackers with their blankets or flash them as a distraction tactic in the first five minutes of the film.

For the first half of the book, I was impatient to see her badassitude.  Thena has told the reader multiple times that she terrorized her teachers and keepers, that military schools sent her back home in defeat.  But while we do see her combat skills several times early on, the psychological aspect was starting to look like an informed ability - something the author tells us is present but of which we see no evidence ourselves.  In retrospect, that's an effect of the setting.  When Thena is among strangers and unsure of her surroundings, she is subdued.  I was overjoyed when, unexpectedly, an impending crisis kick-started her badass gears.  We do see what inspired Thena's reputation and she undoubtedly lives up to it.

I liked how naturally the relationship between Thena and Kit developed.  The progression from enemies to uneasy allies was realistically slow, given that both sides have been fed lies and misinformation about the other for centuries.  And once they realize the other person is indeed a person, they immediately try to convert them to the "good" side instead of listening to why they believe what they do.  After all, people are resistant to change, and why should the author make it easy for them to get along?

This book is laugh out loud hilarious, the kind you can't take to the library because you can't suppress your giggles and the librarian keeps giving you dirty looks.  Besides the earlier quote about not having everything, there's also this gem: "That was when I thought [your people] were all-powerful evil beings.  It was before I got to share a ship with one and understood his was a more pedestrian form of evil, consisting of not picking up his damned dirty clothes..."

There were some science fiction tropes that Thena had trouble wrapping her head around, that I figured out immediately.  I have the advantage of being a science fiction reader and knowing I'm reading a science fiction book so I'm familiar with the concept and can apply it to the situation here.  Thena had to learn it was possible and it was happening.  Fortunately, the plot does not depend on these reveals, or it would have been a very boring story indeed.  It's more about the journey of the characters figuring it out than the destination, as cliche as that sounds.  After all, once you know what the problem is you still have to deal with it, and watching the characters for clues on how it would be resolved kept me interested.

In the backstory, a huge, messy war occurs in the 21st century, leading to the society seen in "present day".  And most of the references to the "historic" time period were hilariously distorted, such as when Thena says that Usa was a religion worshiping Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty.  But there were a few times when I felt the author was hijacking the story to rant about what she believes is wrong with us today.  It was only twice or thrice and only lasted a page or two at a time, but each time jolted me out of the story.  And as an aside, it is impossible to have gender differences in the brain, as gender is cultural.  Biological differences are caused by sex.

There were a few other problems with the narration.  Thena mentions riding brooms and hiding in her broomer lair but does not explain what those terms mean.  I thought brooms were some sort of industrial equipment and when she mentions people in her lair, I assumed they were some sort of workers.  It wasn't until halfway through the book that I realized brooms are like motorcycles and broomer lairs are like biker dens.  She also can't make up her mind what happened to her mother.  At some points she mentions her mother's death and at other points says that her mother left and was never seen again.  I suppose there could be a justification incorporating both (her mother left and then died, maybe?) but it isn't explained and I'm left feeling like there are gaps in the story.

There was another trope present I'm not sure how I feel about, one that TV Tropes calls Bury Your Gays. Basically, in this trope the gay couple is not allowed to have a happy ending.  Even if they themselves are presented as good people, the relationship will end in tragedy.  In this particular example, it's justified.  The doomed relationship needed to be kept secret for plot-related reasons, and the stigma of homosexuality is a ready and realistic explanation.  It worked for the story and made the story stronger.  But in the larger context of our society, it bothers me that it's yet another example of how gays don't get equal treatment.  I want to judge the book solely on its contents, and in that frame it works well.  But we can never truly separate ourselves from what we're reading; we always bring our own baggage into the story.  And in the larger picture, I don't want to see gays presented as victims and gay relationships presented as tragic.

The next book in the series is Darkship Renegades, available sometime in 2011.

Despite some problems I had with the narrative, Darkship Thieves passed my "couldn't put it down" test and I finished it in a single evening.  I give it an A-.

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