Every so often a debut novel comes along and surprises you with the fact that it’s a debut, because it has the polish and confidence of a mature writer. A few years ago, that was Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; last year, for me, Fran Wilde’s Updraft and Becky Chambers’ A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet gave me that same jolt of surprise.
Now Elizabeth Bonesteel’s debut The Cold Between joins the ranks of “debuts that surprised me with their accomplishments.” It might not be Gladstone or Leckie, but despite the occasional hiccup? This is a solid and engaging novel, and a welcome addition to the space opera genre.
Central Corps chief engineer Commander Elena Shaw is on shore leave on the planet Volhynia when her crewmate—and ex-lover—Danny is killed. But she knows the man whom the local police have arrested for his murder, Treiko “Trey” Zajec, is innocent: at the time Danny was being murdered, she and Zajec were having sex. Elena’s alibi can get him out of jail for now, but Zajec is an outsider, a former captain with Central’s occasional-allies-occasional-rivals the PSI. The locals don’t want the truth to come to light, but Elena is determined to get to the truth and make sure the real killer is brought to justice. While following up on Danny’s final hours, she and Trey discover his death may be linked to an unsolved mystery from twenty-five years ago: a mystery to which Elena’s current captain has a very personal connection.
Twenty-five years ago, a disaster claimed the life of Captain Greg Foster’s mother and the crew of the ship on which she served. There’s never been any real answer as to why the starship Phoenix exploded near a wormhole in the vicinity of Volhynia, and the area around the accident site is too saturated with radiation for proper investigation. Now Foster has been informed that a PSI ship fired on a Central Corps vessel not very far from the wormhole, and that the Central government is considering a declaration of war.
Elena and Trey discover there’s a lot more to this story, but before they can do anything about it, the corrupt local cops re-arrest Trey and go about extracting a confession by any means. Elena breaks him out, and the two of them flee off-planet, hoping to find sanctuary—and answers—with the PSI. But the conspiracy isn’t limited to Volhynia, and it isn’t going to let them go without a fight…
Bonesteel’s characters are well-drawn individuals. They need to be: the novel revolves as much around interpersonal relationships as it does around the mystery-conspiracy-thriller plot. The Cold Between opens with Elena and Trey as mutually attracted strangers, willing to act on that attraction: I’ve very rarely read a science fiction novel that gets consensual and reasonably sexy sex on the page within the first couple of chapters. The rest of the novel sees them navigating what their relationship means to each other as they learn more about each other and the problems they keep landing in. It also navigates Elena’s strained friendship with her captain, Greg Foster: a friendship she once relied on, until he broke her trust.
If there’s one place where The Cold Between seems a little slack, it’s in the worldbuilding. It could be richer and more complex, with a greater sense of place and history. As it stands, Central Corps and the Central Government feel like a slightly more realistic version of Star Trek‘s Starfleet and the Federation, and the reader never gets a real sense of what makes the cultures of, say, the PSI or Volhynia any different from the Central Corps, if anything does. Central seems to be the biggest power in this space opera universe, and it seems like a very white American sort of power. I think space opera universes could be a little more varied, personally.
But all things considered, The Cold Between is a fun and entertaining novel, solidly written and solidly paced. (And I say that who’s lately suffered from a dislike of fiction in general.) It’s a promising debut, and I look forward to seeing how Bonesteel improves in the years to come.
The Cold Between is available now from Harper Voyager.