Fiction Reviews

From Distant Stars

(2018) Sam Peters, Gollancz, £16.99 / Can$34.99 / US$26.99, trdpbk, 439pp, ISBN 978-1-473-2178-1


Inspector Keon works for law enforcement on Magenta, a distant, higher-gravity, wind-swept world where only the equatorial zone has near temperate temperatures.

When a comatose military officer, guarded by security in a hospital, gets assassinated the authorities investigate. The thing is that sensors and CCTV detect the man the next day on the other side of magenta?

Keon investigates and it becomes apparent that the assassination is somehow connected to an alien (now centuries gone) 'Masters' spacecraft buried under ice at one of Magenta's poles. Further, he suspects that this somehow might be connected to the murder of his wife years ago by a terrorist.

Who can Keon trust? Even the artificial intelligence that Keon created on Earth and loaded with all the data, social media and other records of his late wife before illegally transporting to Magenta, may have too much of his wife in it: his wife was suspected by some of possibly being a traitor…

This is very much a police procedural but there is plenty of SFnal content.  There are shells (robots that can be either very simple AIs or remotely controlled) and servants (electronic accesses to the internet and allied services that can control wi-fi like connected devices controlled by voice recognition as well as non-vocally). There is the whole business about the mysterious 'Masters' who destroyed a few continents, landscaping the Earth and Moon before mysteriously departing for goodness knows where, leaving behind starships that automatically looped between different star systems (such as the one Magenta is in).  There is the lichen-like vegetation on Magenta, some of which has hallucinatory properties.  There's the Tesseract computer complex on which the authorities rely and to which they seemingly defer as it is considered impartial. And a whole lot more.

The backdrop to From Distant Stars is complex and the first few chapters are packed with information (fortunately without reading like an info dump).  The reason for this detailed backstory is that From Distant Stars follows on from Peter's From Darkest Skies.  Having said that, providing you pay attention to the detail you can just about skip that novel if you wish, though personally I would not recommend it.

Paying attention is, though, important.  This is very much a police procedural and there are many characters, suspects, witnesses not to mention a few support characters and so if you want to guess who-dunnit then you better start taking notes as you read.

Yet there is another way of reading this. Just dive in and get carried along for the ride: and it is quite a ride.

I have to say, when I read From Darkest Skies (see the previous link to my review) I was not sure whether the now-departed, alien 'Masters' were something of a McGuffin.  This time around we get just a little more and it is clear that investigating these mysterious entities is what drives some of the characters (not to mention intrigues readers).  It now looks like there will be a third novel: the betting surely is that we will get some of these questions answered and I for one will check that novel out.

Equally, I do feel that these books need something of a beta reader edit and Gollancz I think has skimped here: there are on just a few times the ordering within the text that does disrupt the narrative flow. And this is all the more annoying as the novel is essentially the unpicking of a puzzle, and so the last thing the reader needs is an occasionally confused writing style. Fortunately these instances are rare.

Again, the exact nature of shells, servants and even the Tesseract is not as clearly defined as might be frequently enough to get a visual sense of how things work. If you like, the novel almost works best as a screenstory (and apparently it has been optioned for television but the betting is that it will be in development hell for a while even if it can escape).  Imagine someone from the 1960s saying he picked up their smartphone and googled a question? That 1960s person would have difficulty knowing what was going on even if a 1960s SF reader might get the gist if that story contained enough references to Google and smartphones.  If altering the text is not something either the author or publisher wishes to change, then an explanatory appendix of terms with just a little exposition would help.

Though the afore is a real flaw, it is only irritating and not crippling for the reader's enjoyment, such are Sam Peters' strengths of plot and world-building. I mention it because the review copy sent SF² Concatenation was not billed as being an advance proof copy with a note that the final proof edit had yet to be done, and anything that trips the reader up causing them to go back and re-read feeling perplexed needs to be weeded out. Fortunately this only happened half a dozen or so times.

Conversely, what Sam Peters does do well are the occasional double, and even triple-layered conversations due to the character speaking and also separately electronically communicating to others. Also, his action scenes are rollicking and his background aliens delightfully enigmatic.

All in all this was a solid tale with plenty to engage the SF reader and, as said, I will make a point of reading the third in this series.  Sam Peters is new as a hard-ish, space opera-ish author and certainly one to watch.  He has though written genre works before: in his own words, as Stephen Deas (badass dragons), Nathan Hawke (badass vikingy types), S. J. Deas (English Civil War mysteries) and Gavin Deas (sarcastic spaceships).  The latest news is that the third novel will be From Divergent Suns and out from Gollancz in 2019.  My advice is start with From Darkest Skies and if you like that (especially with the knowledge that some of that novel's questions will get further fleshed out) get this one.  Those of us onboard can then look forward to From Divergent Suns and some high-g action adventure on the rain and wind-swept Magenta.  Somewhat sturdy brollies at the ready.

Jonathan Cowie

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