Salvage expert. Wreck diver. Historian. The woman called Boss is no stranger to delving into abandoned ships and installations, and has encountered her fair share of trouble and dark secrets. However, this time, she’ll have to deal with problems in the here and now, as friendships and obligations force her to make a life-altering decision. Kristine Kathryn Rusch returns to her space operatic setting with this third book in the series (which boasts a cover blurb from Tor.com’s review of the last installment, City of Ruins, by our own Stefan Raets).
Boneyards is actually two interconnected stories, which weave in and out of one another, never quite connecting until near the end. In plotline A, you have Boss herself, wreck diver turned CEO, who’s taken on her current job as a favor to her friend/lover, Coop. Coop’s from the past: he, along with his crew, were thrown forward in time five thousand years by malfunctioning technology. Now he seeks his way home, yearning to either replicate the accident or find the modern descendants of his people. Boss and her team are helping by investigating the long-lost remnants of Coop’s people, the abandoned space stations and destroyed bases that might offer clues to their passing or more technology to “rediscover.”
So far, their luck is pretty sparse, the trail of breadcrumbs leading across the galaxy from one dangerous spot to the next, eventually pointing them towards something called the Boneyard. It’s a ship graveyard unlike any other, a major breakthrough, but people are willing to kill to keep it safe. And of course, Boss can’t let outsiders know what she’s found, lest it become another point of contention between the Empire and the Nine Planets, who stand at the brink of war.
Meanwhile, story B follows Boss’s old friend, the woman called Squishy. Squishy’s infiltrated the Empire’s science programs, hellbent on destroying their research into stealth technology. See, it turns out that the stealth, or anacapa, technology, is mysterious, unstable, and very poorly understood. It’s actually used for traversing time and space, and the stealth function is just a minor aspect. Unfortunately, the Empire, obsessed with mastering the ancient science, keeps screwing it up, leaving a trail of bodies and tragedy behind. Squishy’s going to put a stop to that, one way or another. But when her mission fails and she’s captured, only one person can save her: Boss.
Now Boss has to decide what’s more important: helping Coop with his mission, or rescuing Squishy from the clutches of the Empire. Either way, she has to take a stand, make a choice, and break some heads. It’s not going to be pretty.
Boneyards is an interesting creature, feeling like several books in one. Boss’ plotline is told from her perspective in present tense, leading to a rather sharp, personal feel. Her emotions are tightly-wound, her narrative almost stark and dreamlike as she goes through the motions. She’s a woman with secrets, pain, paranoia, and drive, and it shows. Things happen around her, and she reacts, rarely showing weakness. She’s strong and fierce, and sometimes it feels like she values every word she uses, doling them out sparingly. Her part of the story always moves forward, always in motion.
Squishy’s half of the tale is told from the outside, in past tense third person, what we might consider “traditional” storytelling. It’s more fluid, able to capture a larger range of details and atmosphere. However, it’s also told in a non-linear fashion, alternating between her present-day quest to destroy the stealth program and the two decades of incidents leading up to it. Bouncing between past and present, we get the full view of what led Squishy to what very well might be a suicide mission. We see how her ex-husband Quint, her ex-lover Turtle, her ex-employer Boss, and so on factor into things, both yesterday and today. While we might think we understand her in the beginning, we truly know her by the time everything catches up to the present, comprehending the full range of choices and actions that factored in. Her story loops around time and again, almost like a spiral.
The setting is interesting, although the nature of this particular story means that a lot of the larger elements aren’t really addressed. I can’t say I’m all that enlightened as to the precise nature and relationship between the Enterran Empire (who seem to be bad), the Nine Planets (who seem to be rebellious) and the Fleet (who seem to be ancient and lost). We do get some looks here and there, but much of the action takes place away from these factions, set in deep space, remote installations, or unaffiliated worlds. I’m always interested in learning more, and it’s just not there. We’re told just as much as we need to know for the purposes of this book, and that’s it. (Admittedly, we probably learn much more in previous books, which I haven’t read yet.) There’s a distinct sense of time and space on an epic level, with “five thousand years” batted around frequently.
Rusch really shines where atmosphere is concerned. From the dark and dirty remnants of Sector Base W, to the opulent space resort Azzelia, from the secret research station to the planet Treffet, Rusch’s environments come to life. From Squishy’s desperation and cunning to Boss’s determination and self-reliance, the characters are fleshed out. From pensive self-recrimination, to tense confrontations, to sudden bursts of action, each scene plays out. It makes for a fascinating story.
The actual ending comes with almost surprising speed, the climax almost breakneck in its sudden resolution. There’s a lot of set-up for future installments in the series, making this feel like the first half, or possibly just a small piece, of something larger. We’ll see where Rusch goes next, I suppose, now that things are in motion.
One thing I haven’t touched upon yet is the underlying, thought-provoking question. Is Squishy right? Is Boss right? Should the technology be hidden away to prevent misuse? Is the cost of destroying the Empire’s stealth program worth it? Some might argue that it’s okay to lose thousands of lives to master a technology that might save many more, others might argue that no lives should be lost at all. Squishy’s either a terrorist or an idealist, depending on how you view her mission and her loyalties, but we’re clearly meant to root for her. This is a topic that could be argued for hours, and Rusch only scratches the surface. It’s a pretty profound thing, and I, for one, have no answers. But it does make this book more than a simple spaceships n’ action kind of tale.
In the end, I really enjoyed Boneyards, and I’ll definitely have to see what comes next, and if Rusch can keep up the excellent work.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookself.