All Captain Abraham Idaho “Ida” Cleveland and his robotic knee want is to retire with honor. The Fleet has other ideas, however, and shunt him off to a space station orbiting a toxic purple star on the outer reaches of charted space to supervise its disassembly.
When he arrives, he’s met with derision and mocking rather than respect and praise. The marines on the U-Star Coast City decide he’s lying about his great victory against the Spiders, a race of planet-destroying sentient machines in arachnoid shape. Ida sulks but doesn’t dwell. Instead he seeks solace in Izanami, a medic left behind to tend to the few and far between crew, and his hobby of building space radios from scratch.
Something’s very wrong with the Coast City. The commandant has apparently fled, and crew seem to be vanishing as if they were never there at all. The star, called Shadow, behaves exactly like a star shouldn’t, and chips away at their electronics and communications systems, white noise and static thrumming through every action. Out of nowhere a woman calls to Ida from across space and time, just as psi-marine Carmen Serra hears the whispers of her dead grandmother and her lover Charlie Carter sees his dead parents. The provost surrounds himself with keys and clues to a conspiracy that threatens to overtake them all. And at the center of it all is Ida.
I should admit something before we get too far into this review. I don’t actually like science fiction. Let me clarify that. Spaceships, warp drives, and technobabble mumbo jumbo bore the pants off of me. I tried watching Star Trek: The Next Generation when it was on—I had a crush on a Trekkie—and the only thing I remember enjoying about it was Whoopi Goldberg. I’ve seen all the Star Wars movies, but only liked the third one and mostly because the Ewoks were cute. Every time I try to start an Arthur C. Clarke book or the Dune series, I give up a few chapters in. SF, particularly hard SF doesn’t work for me. I can’t really codify what particularly turns me off, just that it does. I don’t begrudge those who love it, but it will never be my thing, man.
Given that general distaste, it probably wasn’t a good idea for me to cover Adam Christopher’s The Burning Dark. But I’m also a firm believer in trying something before deciding whether or not you like it, and retrying something a few years later to see if you still feel the same way. It had been a while since my last dose of literary SF (if I recall, I checked out Heinlein’s Starship Troopers because I liked the movie...and I still only like the movie...), and the description sounded intriguing enough, so here we are in the middle of a review of an SF book by an reviewer who doesn’t so much care for SF.
Plot twist! I actually enjoyed The Burning Dark. But in spite of the SF, not because of it. Dark isn’t really much of a science fiction novel at all. Sure, it’s got all the trappings—spaceships, warp drives, hyperspace, aliens, etc.—but at its heart it is a haunted house horror story. And I am such a sucker for haunted house stories. (One of my favorite movies is the House on Haunted Hill remake. Seriously. I even like it more than the original Vincent Price one. No, seriously.) I am under no delusion that the stories are “good” or “quality entertainment.” No, I like seeing some long-dead ghoul isolate and manipulate a bunch of losers who wouldn’t know ancient evil if it walked up to them and handed them its business card. Then rip them to gory shreds. That’s always fun, too.
And that’s the thing about The Burning Dark. It relies on everyone being as illogical and willfully blind as possible (much like a very popular television show about zombies I could mention...). There’s a scene in almost every haunted house movie where a character comes face to face with something ridiculously implausible then shrugs it off as just another weird thing in a weird house where a bunch of people died in unspeakable torment. Hearing strange voices and knocking in a supposedly empty corridor? Seeing shadows move on their own accord in a vaguely humanoid shape? A mysterious figure following you around that no one else can see or hear but you? Eh, whatever. Just life’s little mysteries.
The other downside to this type of story is its predictability. Heroes are trapped somewhere, evil teases and threatens, heroes freak out way too late, evil manifests, the final battle ensues. Everything in Dark happens exactly on schedule, and characters behave and react however the plot needs them to. If anyone in the book had any sense at all, they would’ve abandoned ship as soon people started having conversations with the dead. But then there wouldn’t be a story, either.
Christopher is a very good writer, with a strong sense of craft and imagery. The characters are, for the most part, fresh and complex, with their own only mildly trope-y personalities. The suspense and tension are there from the get-go and don’t let up until the very end. Once the book got going, I raced through it, reluctant to put it down. He has created a compelling universe populated by sentient machines, short-sighted humans, and malevolent monsters, and I can’t wait to see more of it. Two more books are scheduled in the Spider Wars series, and I’m curious to see where he’s headed. I kind of prefer Dark as a standalone, but there’s a lot of story that was underused, particularly the Spiders. They are crucial to the plot, but frustratingly underdeveloped; presumably they’ll be dealt with more in future installments.
I know this review sounds harsh and critical, but I really did dig The Burning Dark, just not entirely for the reasons I was supposed to. Look, if you’re going into The Burning Dark expecting the next 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien, you’re going to be disappointed. Just go with the ride, enjoy the pulp, and don’t fret the problematic.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.