At one point in Alex White’s A Bad Deal For the Whole Galaxy, the ne’er-do-well crew of the Capricious is simultaneously engaged in a heist (from the most secure facility in the known universe) and a plan to insert one of their own into a a fanatical terrorist group to act as a double agent.
Those plots only take up about half the book, which might give you some idea of how quickly this thing moves. Just when you think you can take a breath and and hang with the characters for a chapter or two, something else arrives to endanger them.
A Bad Deal… is the second book in White’s space-based SF series featuring the crew of the Capricious, following with A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe. Going in, I was worried I might be lost trying to remember everything that happened last time around, but White allays those fears with an opening action sequence that quickly catches us up on the latest of the crew’s adventures, then takes a break for a quick reunion with Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth, one of our narrators, who, at the end of the first book, thought she might retire to run a distillery. Invariably, unfinished business, that nemesis of lowlifes everywhere, soon makes itself known.
This reunion scene is an elegant reintroduction to this wacky space opera universe.
“Okay, let me see if I’ve got this straight.”
Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth looked over her old companions, nursing her glass of unclear, unaged whiskey. The crew of the Capricious had landed in her backyard on Hopper’s Hope, uninvited. Now, Cordell, Armin, Nilah, Orna, Aisha, Malik and the strange pair of gingers were gathered in the uncomfortably large kitchen of Boots’s obnoxiously huge house; for the first time since Boots had moved into her mansion by the distillery, the place felt full.
She raised her tumbler to the crew, pointing at them with her metal index finger. She’d worked with doctors to upgrade it in the months since they’d seen her, converting it to full regraded steel. It looked a little more human—but not enough. It was nothing like a magical prosthesis. “Two weeks ago, your big plan was to extract this Forscythe character and…force him to talk? From Morrison Station, no less.” She took a long pull of her white dog whiskey and coughed. It was well and truly awful stuff.
Nilah is a former race car driver with a love of adrenaline, Orna is the ship’s quartermaster. Nilah and Orna are involved, though their relationship is tested by the demands of their missions, which never go as planned. Captain Cordell is the stoic but caring leader. First Officer Armin is a datamancer who will, yes, tell you the odds. Malik is the doctor; Aisha the pilot and magical sharpshooter. The crew is rounded out by a pair of twins who possess the magical mark for reading minds. (Yes, this is a universe where science and magic co-exist quite… well, not peacefully…)
The story is told through the eyes of Boots and Nilah. Boots’ perspective is that of an older veteran, scarred by war and the destruction of her planet, while Nilah is an optimistic new recruit of sorts. Boots is one of the rare people in her universe who has zero connection to magic, while Nilah is an incredibly gifted mage, her power set contained in tattoo marks under her arms.
White does a terrific juggling act between action plots and excellently portrays the varied personalities of the diverse crew of the Capricious, but it’s the seamless interweaving of sci-fi and magic that truly sets the book apart (considering the influence of Star Wars, magical sc-fi is still rather rare). For instance, Orna controls her artificially intelligent battle armor, called Charger, with a tech bracelet that basically runs on her magic. Nilah can hack into any data system using the marks tattoed on her arms. Perhaps the most clever use of magic is the “curse” put on Boots: uning a magical cup that grants wishes (sure), a killer made Boots sign a binding contract not to reveal his whereabouts, ever; it also prevents her from speaking to or about him, or going after him. The contract was sealed with a magical, unbreakable barrister’s mark. (What lawyer wouldn’t kill for the ability to make people sign an unbreakable contract?)
When Boots simply tries to talk about the man who cursed her, it goes… not well:
“He’s the guy who shot your partner. More importantly, he’s the guy with the—”
Blinding pain pushed in through her eyelids, eliminating all thoughts of finishing that sentence. It was the old curse, as familiar as an abscessed tooth, coming to shut down the conversation. How many times had she felt it during the press junkets after her show went belly-up? When she’d talked of Stetson before, it’d been idle speculation. Now, she intended to implicate him, to help her friends catch him, and the contract she’d signed wouldn’t abide that.
Breaking the curse will require the crew of the Capricious to use tech in a particularly ingenious way that I’m loathe to reveal. That isn’t to say this is a book that lives or dies by its shocking twists; they’re just too fun to spoil.
The villains are the head of an Ayn Randian-style cult in which only the strong survive and where screwing over your fellows is a matter of course. Gods shouldn’t deal with lesser mortals—or so the cult members believe—and they have nigh-omnipotent power to back them up.
The crew’s current quarry is a sorcerer who can project his murderous power through light, even from thousands of miles away.
The shadows lunged, and Nilash whipped her arms about in a frenzy, punching anything she could. The viscous darkness closed around her forearms, but couldn’t secure a proper grip through the pulsing lights. Nilah ripped her arms free and spun to flee but found a rising tidal wave of singing black sludge.
It gets worse for Nilah once the shadows start manifesting multiple mouths with sharp teeth and razor-sharp shadow claws.
Over the course of the story, Nilah and the telepathic twins must infiltrate the cult to gain information about their leader, while Boots and Orna commit the aforementioned heist on a planet that is basically the Cayman Islands of the wider universe. These subplots eventually lead the crew to a secret space station where the ultra-rich and powerful of the universe can do whatever they want—as long as they do it to the 99-percenters whose lives they treat like matches to be spent carelessly (the rich are served by human slaves whose free will has been stripped of them by techno-magical imprints).
Omnipotent beings screwing over humanity doesn’t sit well with our crew. And, if there’s one thing that’s predictable about this story, it’s that things that piss off the crew of the Capricious tend to go boom in spectacular fashion.
Can’t wait until the next book.
The post A Bad Deal For the Whole Galaxy Is a Great Deal For Space Opera Fans appeared first on The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.