A few chapters into A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe, a marvelous new space opera from Alex White (Every Mountain Made Low), I was enjoying myself so much, I decided to keep a running tally of the novel’s space battles. I think I lost count at five.
I tried to keep track of the number of hand-to-hand fights, whether on planets or aboard ships. Lost count again.
To call this book fast-paced or action-packed is underselling it. Buckle up, readers: this is a ride you won’t want to get off until the end.
But let me back-up and explain what it is about, other than keeping readers up late reading.
It begins with Nilah, the best driver in the galactic version of the Grand Prix. These “cars” are a mix of galactic tech and magic, as is Nilah herself. This might suggest the novel will be centered on Nilah’s quest to win the championship; I certainly thought so, and settled in for just that, because who doesn’t like crazy high-speed galactic races infused with magic?
Settled in. Hah.
There is no settling with this story. Soon, Nilah is being attacked on the track—something that should be impossible—and witnesses another racer being murdered before she accidentally teleports to an unknown location. She’s then instantly tagged as a fugitive, and the real race is on. Out of her element, Nilah is a great viewpoint character for the madness that follows—she’s so self-centered and focused on being the best racer that when she’s thrown into the deep end of a much bigger story story, we share her confusion, and get our bearings alongside her.
But before we get back to Nilah’s mess, the viewpoint shifts to Elizabeth “Boots” Ellsworth, who has her own problems. First, she’s a woman without magic in a world full of magic users. Next, she’s a veteran of a war from the losing side. Third, she’s a failed media personality whose one big triumph exploring the legends of lost ships is long in the past. In short, she’s broke, she’s pissed off the wrong people, and she needs a fresh start.
Eventually, Nilah and Boots end up on the same ship, the Capricious, captained by Boots’ former commander, Cordell. He and his crew are none-too-pleased that Boots sold them a star map to nowhere. Boots needs to win their trust again, and fast, while Nilah is simply struggling to find a way to access her money and her connections and return to her old life. (The reader realizes much more quickly than Nilah does how impossible this will be.).
Everything goes promptly sideways as Nilah, Boots, Cordell and the crew of the Capricious wander recklessly into a greater conspiracy that points them to yet another legendary lost ship—a very big ship, way out in the far reaches of space (at the edge of the universe, even).
If you’re thinking this all sounds a bit like a quest narrative crossed with Firefly, there are echoes in the general concept, and it’s probably no great coincidence that the title also recalls another excellent novel about the diverse crew of a rag-tag workaday vessel (Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), but the crew of the Capricious are terrific, original creations, from the captain determined to protect the crew that is all he has left from the war, to the intense first officer, to the ship’s chef. (Orna, the cynical force of nature that is the ship’s quartermaster, steals every scene she’s in, alongside her robot battle suit, Ranger.) This is a book filled with what the kids call big feels; these characters aren’t afraid to say what they are thinking and to wear their emotions on the sleeves of their space suits. You’ll love them as much as they wind up loving each other. It’s this crew up against the most powerful beings in the universe, and our rag-tag heroes will take those odds.
This is fantastic stuff, in every sense of the word: characters, magic, tech, varied planetary settings, onboard ship life, the history of the galactic wars, and even a little sex and romance are woven in so seamlessly, there is never a dull moment. I’m in awe at the number of narrative balls White tosses into the air (some of them arcing pretty high) without dropping one.
I don’t want to be part of the crew of the Capricious, exactly—that would be suicidal, given the chances they take—but I sure want to read more of their adventures.
The good news is that this is only book one of a series. Book two of The Salvagers saga, the similarly excellently titled A Bad Deal For the Whole Galaxy, is due out in December.