In The Kassa Gambit, the human race has expanded beyond the confines of Earth. So much so that Earth is a distant memory, a legend if you will, with the word “Earth” residing in the modern lexicon of the novel as something of a mythical expletive. After many planets have been deemed to have no intelligent life, those lifeless planets were mined for their resources. Consequently, humanity comes to realize they are alone. At the start of the novel, the space freighter Ulysses, captained by Prudence Falling, is en route to the farming planet Kassa, from which it hears no signal or signs of life. The planet Kassa has been devastated with no life remaining. The cause of this destruction will be at the heart of the novel’s mystery, for it seems non-human aliens are responsible. This, per my earlier statement, should not be possible because no traces of intelligent life were found prior to the novel’s events.
Prudence’s ship is the typical motley crew found in such stories: the simple brute Jorgun; Melvin, the snarky engineer; Garcia the cargo-man. Much like Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity, the cargo they carry isn’t always above-board or within regulations of the League, humanity’s governing body. So when the Ulysses tries to get a better handle on the situation on Kassa, Prudence and her crew come into contact with space cop Lt. Kyle Daspar. Kyle isn’t exactly what he seems either, nor do many of the things characters have taken for granted seem to be.
Planck’s debut does have some stand out elements, but for me, it was probably the protagonist Prudence Falling. She came across as a fully realized character: from her stresses and internal debates of whether she would sleep with Kyle, to her interactions with her crew, I believed her. She’s a strong character. I also liked the alternating third-person omniscient narrative structure; one chapter from Pru’s point-of-view followed by a chapter from Kyle’s point-of-view. This managed to build more empathy and understanding for both characters’ plights. Even despite that, their coming together romantically didn’t come across as naturally as it should have, especially considering how they were butting heads in their early scenes in the novel. It felt as if Planck had these two characters he wanted to hook up, put them through stages in their relationship some of which seemingly happened ‘off screen,’ and just made it happen sans emotion; as if boxes were being checked off a list. On that basis, it seems The Kassa Gambit could be the start of an ongoing series and it seems perhaps that Planck may have more stories about these two as a couple or pair in mind.
Planck throws a great many tropes and genres into the stew of The Kassa Gambit. The novel is part first contact, part conspiracy theory, part mystery, part romance, and part thriller along with some effectively creepy scenes that would fit into a horror novel. It isn’t always a comfortable balance throughout the novel and perhaps suffered because of the lack of cohesion. On the surface The Kassa Gambit, has the trappings of typical first contact, government conspiracy, and military SF novels. One of the credos of writing is to pack everything you can into your work, but I felt Planck was attempting too much with mashing up far-future space opera with noir mystery elements and a romance subplot. In short, it seemed to me that the novel couldn’t quite gain its full footing in any of these elements making for an uneven disconnected read.
While Planck has done a great job lending a well-realized backdrop to the novel, the pacing felt sporadic. The beginning of the novel pulled me in, but my emotional investment waned through much of the middle portion of the novel. The thrown together romance plot and the somewhat unbalanced pace kept The Kassa Gambit from being only a slightly-better than average novel. It wasn’t a bad book, but it did not hold my attention from beginning to end.