The Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, by Alex White
Time to foray into the world of traditional publishing. I read a book called The Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe by Alex White. This book is a combination of sci-fi in the most space opera terms, and fantasy put together on an epic scale. It isreminiscent of the television series Firefly with some elements of Formula One racing.
This book follows a couple of different characters. The first one is Nilah, a professional race car driver. She uses her magic glyph to better drive her car at breakneck speeds, with the singular aim of winning. She is, undoubtedly, one of the best drivers in the universe. Of course, in her last race, things went rather sideways and she ended up transporting out in a wave of magic that left her a victim of kidnapping and accused of murder. Enter Boots. Boots is a former pilot of a space flyer, on the wrong end of a civil war. After losing, she became a renowned treasure hunter, finding artefacts salvaged in space. Now, she is rather down on her luck, and looking for money that isn’t there. Her only companion is a military grade AI system, which is illegal to own. Her former crew comes after her for selling them bunk star charts, and Boots ends up on the run. She runs into Nilah, as well as her old crew, and the two get taken aboard and dragged into a rather dubious quest to go find the most renowned salvage ever. Naturally, there are other people trying to get there first. The salvage is the ancient warship Harrow, and it is entirely possible that the fate of the universe depends on their finding it.
This story, outwardly, looks like Firefly has been reincarnated in a race car movie. It is a fascinating combination of space opera and fantasy, two genres which rarely get spliced together. Actually, science fiction and fantasy rarely get put together at all, but when they do, seeing the magic that results from advanced technology is something spectacular to behold. Add in the Western elements of a space opera, and you’re in for a very good time. As it happens, this book is a very, very good time.
The characters are presented almost as caricatures of reality. Nilah is arrogant and naïve and a little bit prejudiced. I liked her a whole lot at the very beginning, when I knew very little about her, and I hated her a little bit for perhaps the next 15% of the story, and then I liked her a whole lot again. It was really interesting to see the character development grow in situations that are way beyond the realm of what one would normally experience, but which make perfect sense in context of the story. Once you got to know Nilah, she became less caricature and more real. The same can be said for Boots, who is almost the definition of washed up and lonely. Her golden days are long behind her, and you are well aware of this. But she is also endearing in her crankiness and once you learn more about her past, and see her in action, she also becomes a beloved character.
My favorite character, though, is the battle suit Ranger. If you have to ask, go read the book.
The world building in this story combines an artful mix of highly advanced technology that I do not understand and magic, which I also do not understand. The technology is feasible, based on current scientific models, but it is way beyond the realm of any theoretical physics or mechanics that I have ever played with. And the fact that it combines magic — which is something that is inherently not meant to be understood — with technology, makes everything all that little bit more fantastical and unattainable. However, in context with the characters and the situations in which they find themselves, the world comes alive. Everything has its place and works seamlessly with everything else. There are flaws in the system that the characters have to remedy, just like in any system. If something goes wrong, it is quite obvious. Frankly, this is one of the most complicated world building scenarios I have ever seen, and it is both terrifying and fascinating. In a nutshell, I like it a lot.
The storyline itself definitely follows the space opera/fantasy tropes and does it to such a degree that you almost don’t even notice they’re there. The storyline itself is relatively simple (except for the stunning revelation of the end), when combined with the spectacular world building and the characters, it takes on the nature of something rarely seen in books and more often seen in highly thought out television series. There is development, there are plot twists, and yet things move along at a nice steady pace.
My one critique for the story itself is that there were a few things that seemed a little bit too obvious or too easy for the characters. I can’t say a whole lot more than that without giving away serious spoilers for the story and for character development, but I will say that these events take place closer to the end when events are moving towards the climax. These events obviously needed to happen for the story to progress, but I think that they could’ve been done a little bit better. They are not hugely important though, so I would say on the whole it’s alright.
If you are in the mood for a stunning space opera/fantasy adventure story, I would highly recommend this book. It is one of the most intricate books I have read in a good long while and I liked it quite a lot. The characters are deep, the world is intense, and the story has just enough lightheartedness to keep you smiling. Then, I am inordinately fond of race cars and space cowboys, so anything that combines the two is pretty much going to be tickety-boo for me. Oh, and did I mention that there is sentient battle armour?