Starship Captain Ed Carew leads a carefree life of smuggling, gun-running and other illicit pursuits in a far future ruled by the fascistic Expansion Authority. But when an Expansion judiciary ship captures Carew leaving the planet of Hesperides, an out-of-bounds world now governed by the fearsome Vetch extraterrestrials, Carew and his crew are sentenced to death…
Unless they agree to travel through Vetch territory in pursuit of a human vessel that set off for the Devil’s Nebula one hundred years ago. Why are the Expansion authorities so eager to track down the ship? Will Carew and co. survive the journey through Vetch territory? And what might they find when they arrive at the Devil’s Nebula?
I love Eric Brown’s writing. His Kéthani made me believe I might enjoy SF outside of the military SF subgenre, that I wasn’t too dense to get it, as it were. Though other than Kéthani I haven’t read any of his other novels, I did love his short story with Keith Brooke in Solaris Rising and loved the snippets I’ve read of Kings of Eternity, which has been on my TBR-pile for far too long. So when Abaddon Books announced that Brown would be creating a new shared world for them, I was duly excited. Here was a shared world I could not only get in on from the ground level, it was thought up by one of my favourite SF writers. So reviewing The Devil’s Nebula, the first book set in the Weird Space universe was really a no-brainer for me. And I’m glad to say, Brown lived up to my expectations.
After introducing us to Captain Ed Carew, his pilot Lania and his engineer Jeb while they are in the middle of – let’s call it an asset extraction – on Hesperides, during which he also manages to impart the basic facts about humanity’s relations with its nearest alien neighbours, the Vetch, these three intrepid adventurers get caught by Expansion officials for breaking the law. In three short chapters Brown manages not only to establish two of his three points of view, he shows us the two main powers in his universe, humanity’s Expansion and their alien adversaries, the Vetch and gives us an idea how the power balance between the two lies. Once caught, Carew and his crew get offered the same Dirty Dozen deal as the one I referenced in my Control Point review. This time the analogy is even closer, as our trio are criminals who get their sentence commuted if they agree to go on a very dangerous mission. It’s probably just coincidence, but I was amused by the fact that I’ve read two novels so close together that both utilise this same trope. The crew’s storyline, which is told from both Carew’s and Lania’s points of view, alternates with that of Maatja, a young woman living on World in a society of human settlers dominated by the Weird, a strange and terrifying alien species. She is our window on World and shows us what living with the Weird is like. When these two storylines converge, Brown has made the stakes clear, not just for the inhabitants of World, but for all humanity. They are high and they make for an exciting climax of The Devil’s Nebula.
Brown’s stories are mostly character-driven in my experience and The Devil’s Nebula is no different. I like Carew and Lania. They live on the fringes of both society and the law, but all the same are likeable and seemingly decent human beings. There seems to be a lot of emotional baggage for the both of them, which we only learn about in full by the end of the novel. I liked that Brown keeps us guessing a little at their history, while at the same time making clear that this history is what is informing their decisions. I loved Lania’s relationship with Gina. It’s good to see a same-sex coupling forming without any raised eyebrows or emphasis on such. While I was rather surprised by the swiftness of their bonding, the fact that it is cemented by the stressful situations they find themselves in made it more believable. Maatja is an outsider, similar to Carew and Lania, though in her case less by choice than by necessity. While she wants things to change, she wants to change them from within her community, even though she knows this really isn’t possible. If I’d have one critique, it would be that some characters were a little telegraphed, particularly Jeb, but it’s hard to explain this without giving spoilers for the story. Suffice it to say, that some things aren’t as surprising as they should be.
The Devil’s Nebula is the set up for a new shared world. Brown does this admirably. While he gives us a clear outline of the universe/humanity and its eventual main nemesis, there is still much left to explore. I can see stories going both forward in time and stories exploring the history of this universe and how space came to be divided as it is between the Expansion and the Vetch. It will be interesting to see whether any of the writers who will be part of this world will choose to set their stories in the Vetch world instead of in the Expansion. One thing is for sure, Brown has created a solid base for others to work from and expand upon themselves.
Weird Space has a lot of potential and I’m curious to see where it will go. As for The Devil’s Nebula, I hope it is only the first chapter in many chronicling the adventures of Carew and Lania, because I’ve the feeling their story is far from over, even if the narrative is self-contained. This book was a great start to a shared universe and once more Eric Brown proves he’s my gateway author to non-military SF. I think I have to move Kings of Eternity up on the TBR pile! Weird space: The Devil’s Nebula will be available from Abaddon Books May 29th in the US and Canada and June 21st in the UK.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.