(2015) Ian Whates, NewCon Press, hrdbk, £25.99, 268pp, ISBN 978-1-907-06977-2
Pelquin’s Comet is a good, old fashioned, space opera and a worthy example of the genre. It is nicely written, has good characters and an interesting storyline, and the pages turned well.
It is set in a future where mankind has moved out to the stars and enjoys faster-than-light travel via RzSpace. The only other intelligent specie found so far is the Xters, a sort of spider-like creature, though we do not get to see much of them. Each specie finds the other repulsive but they mostly leave each other alone as there is little need for conflict; worlds which are fit for human habitation are of no use to Xters and vice versa. Many millennia before there was another race, simply referred to as the Elders, but nothing is known of them save for the caches of their technology which they left behind, hidden on all sorts of planets. The Elders’ artefacts are sometimes of great use and provide new technologies though sometimes they are of little use (or maybe their real use has not been discovered); either way, Elder caches offer great rewards. However, the caches are often protected by guardian entities; the nature of these has never been discovered but they have often proven deadly and difficult to overcome - treasure comes at a price.
A while ago Nate Almont was on a mining ship which stumbled on a very large Elder cache only to find that the guardian was very effective; in the end it was only Nate who survived. He contacted his oldest friend and usual crew partner, Thomas Pelquin, and they have laid their plans to return to the planet, this time prepared and with all the right equipment. Sometime ago, using his share from an earlier cache find, Pelquin had bought an old Comet-class freighter which he renamed Pelquin’s Comet. Apart from Nate, his crew consists of Brenda (an ex-soldier, a generally handy person to have around and especially good with weapons), Monkey (actually Malcolm, the ship’s engineer), Anna (the ship’s pilot), and Ahmed (often referred to as the doc, a qualified doctor and user of certain substances who prefers the simpler life of a crewman).
The story opens on New Sparta as Pelquin approaches the First Solar Bank, seeking a loan to finance his expedition. Assessing that he stands a good chance of succeeding, the bank agrees to the loan but on the condition that one of their best field representatives joins the party. Corbin Thadeus Drake is very good at his job: he is a keen observer, very experienced, and very good at taking rapid action when it is required. Pelquin is not happy about this but has little choice; he even has to accept that Drake insists on bringing Mudball, a small, moss-green blob of fur he passes off as his genpet (a genetically created pet). However, we soon learn that there is much more to the bank representative; he had a very different life before he became Corbin Drake. Similarly, Mudball is no pet; in fact Drake is not quite sure what he is as Mudball is vague about his past. All Drake knows is that Mudball saved his life when he was trapped in an Elder cache in return for being shown the universe. They communicate telepathically and Mudball has proven very useful; whilst he cannot read minds, he can sense emotions and can also hack unnoticed into any system ‘telepathically’.
The crew of Pelquin’s Comet have just finished loading all their new equipment aboard when they are attacked by gunmen. They have little choice but to slam shut the loading bay doors and make a rapid and unauthorised take off, a dangerous and illegal manoeuvre; there will be much paperwork to do and doubtless many legal costs when they return.
Also on New Sparta is Faylin de Souza, an unpleasant and self-important executive from the Jossyren Mining Corporation. He is aware of Nate’s find and their intention of emptying the cache but he reasons that, rather than finance the trip himself, he would see a much higher profit if he were to follow Pelquin’s Comet, let them do the work and take the risks, then steal the artefacts from them. It is he who paid the gunmen, wanting to spook the crew into a rapid departure and before they might get any suspicions of his intentions. In his corrupt pay is Archer, another field representative of the First Solar Bank. Like Drake, Archer is much cleverer than he appears, he too has a secret other life, and in truth it is he that is exploiting de Sousa.
Pelquin soon realises he has several problems: Monkey has been critically injured and is immediately confined to cryostasis, some of the new equipment has been damaged and must be replaced, and there is a problem with the engines. He has no choice but to drop out of RzSpace to a nearby planet and chooses Babylon as the most suitable. They soon have Monkey in hospital but it will be some time before he is fit to rejoin them. As they set about replacing the damaged equipment, Drake realises that Pelquin had secretly intended to stop at Babylon anyway as it has allowed him to quietly bring onboard some unusual equipment, specially made and ordered in advance. They also need new a new engineer for the while and are luckier than they realise in finding Leesa.
Leesa is something of an enigma, especially to herself. She woke one morning with no memories of who she was, the result of a very effective mind wipe. Odd fragments return when she dreams but all she really knows is that she is a devastating fighter, a really good ship’s mechanic, and - to be kept very secret - an auganic; she has been augmented with expensive and highly illegal tech. He keeps it very quiet but Drake recognises her - she is someone from his well-hidden past. Their next stop is Brannan’s World, where Pelquin engages in a little blackmail of a local dubious businessman-turned-politician to obtain the necessary permit to enter Xter space. Then, as Holmes might put it, the game is on. This being a treasure hunt within a space opera, I doubt that I am giving much away when I say that there are more dangers to be faced, there will be treachery and other foul deeds, and that any successes will come at a price.
As you will have gathered by now, Captain Pelquin comes from the same mould as Han Solo and Mal Reynolds and has the sort of motley crew that the latter enjoyed in Firefly. I found the characters, both major and minor, to be well drawn and not merely names on which to hang dialogue, and the story to build up interestingly and maintain a steady pace. Whilst at times there were things that came as a surprise to the reader, they had clearly been in the writer’s mind all along and been nicely hidden until the story naturally drew them out. All in all, a most enjoyable read.
This is very much a complete novel but it is clear that a number of the characters have some interesting times ahead of them; hardly surprising as the cover proclaims this to be Book One of the 'Dark Angels'. So get writing Mr. Whates, I want to know what happens next.
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