There are relatively few skilled toilet scrubbers in genre fiction, and Dan Moren’s debut novel, The Caledonian Gambit, makes the surprising argument that we’ve been missing out. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, after all—so why not with a toilet scrubber in hand? The novel’s lead character is also a pilot, refugee, political prisoner, and a spy, but he’s somewhat reluctant in all of his other roles. As a maintenance technician, he knows his place, and he’s made his peace with it (shades of Roger Wilco, who I’d wager was a strong inspiration). It’s only when he’s forced to return home to Caledonia that things get complicated.
This galaxy is connected via a series of wormhole gates that allow for faster-than-light travel, and two large empires struggle for control of known space: the Illyricans, frequently conquerors; and the Commonwealth. Sabaea is a minor, independent world of little significance, but the Illyricans have their eye on it, and there’s little hope the locals’ meager defenses will be able to hold them off for long. An invasion begins, but the Sabaeans carry out a last, desperate plan: they blow up the gate that connects their world to all of the other known worlds. It’s a shocking act that wipes out the invading ships, but it also cuts them off from trade and communication with the rest of the galaxy—at least until the gate can be rebuilt.
Trapped on the Sabaean side of the gate are the soldiers of the empire, including Kyle Rankin. Rankin was a whiz pilot who joined up with the Illyricans after his own world of Caledonia was subdued, and he finds himself the subject of government not overly friendly to enemy pilots. He’s lucky, though: he’s not seen as much of a threat, and winds up with a job as a bathroom tech. He spends the next several years getting really good at scrubbing toilets, and rather enjoying the peace and quiet. He’s a survivor, and has made a habit of it by not expecting anything more.
When the gate is rebuilt, a nobody like Rankin expects to be ignored, but he’s wrong: a representative of Commonwealth intelligence, Simon Kovalic, is looking for him. Rankin, whose real name is Eli Brody, has family connections with a radical resistance group back on Caledonia. That, and the fact that he’s able to blend in, makes him a valuable asset in the hunt for information about a weapon that could alter the balance of power in the galaxy.
What follows is equal parts intrigue and action, a spacefaring spy adventure that’s real draw is Eli Brody himself. He’s frequently a reactive character, but that doesn’t take away from his complexity and charm. He’s a born pilot who’s developed a terror of flying; the child of a conquered world who, for lack of anything better to do, went to work for his oppressor; and a toilet-scrubber who becomes the operative of a spy agency. Most of us would like to imagine that we’d be instant heroes in this type of story, but Eli’s reluctance and snark make him more believable and relatable than is easily admittable.
There’s a bit of politics and intrigue in the mix, but the action sequences are a highlight: my eyes sometimes glaze over in books with drawn out space battles, but Moren keeps things moving briskly without sacrificing clarity. He sketches out his locations deftly, too—Caledonia is, appropriately enough, where we spend most of our time,and as the name implies, the people there seem to be descendants of modern Scots, metaphorically and culturally, if not genetically. There are several scenes set in pubs that could just as easily have taken place in Glasgow as on a distant alien planet. The name is a signifier, but it’s a helpful one. Without bogging us down in exposition, Moren gives us a strong sense of place. That, in turn, gives us a better sense of Brody and his family, all of whom become important when he reluctantly reclaims the past he left behind.
Dan Moren is best known as a podcaster and tech blogger, but that could soon change. This debut novel is a brisk and fun adventure with spies, family drama, and space battles, carried off with a light touch and an old-school style that’s entirely welcome in the frequently grimdark world of modern genre fiction, and a main character you won’t soon forget. Maybe you’re sure you’d never wind up scrubbing a toilet in the middle of a sci-fi adventure. For the rest of us: we are Eli Brody.