In Corey J. White’s Killing Gravity, we were introduced to a living weapon, voidwitch Mariam Xi, better known as Mars. The shadowy interstellar government agency MEPHISTO raised her from childhood and turned her into a psychic living weapon that Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force would respect as an equal. Mars’ powers are ferocious and dangerous even under tabs, becoming fearsome when truly unleashed. Mars is untrusting of strangers, having been burned too many times. The events of Killing Gravity hit Mars where she is most vulnerable, in her inability to trust people. Thus a raucous and audacious space opera has as its core a very human story of Mars learning to trust other people, and taking steps for her to try and ensure her autonomy.
(Spoilers for Killing Gravity below.)
Void Black Shadow picks up right after the events of the first novella. Mars has managed to kill Commander Briggs, the head of the project under the sprawling forces of MEPHISTO responsible for Mars’ creation as a voidwitch. His operation is wrecked, and his facilities will not convert any more people like Mars into living weapons. A measure of revenge has been achieved. But in the process of doing this, Mookie, one of her crewmates aboard the Nova, has been taken by more of MEPHISTO’s forces. While Mars would still prefer to be alone and isolated (except maybe for her genetically altered feline, Ocho. Maybe.), she cannot turn her back on being partly responsible for Mookie’s capture and incarceration. And so she and the rest of the crew of the Nova must try and get him back. And so spins a story.
In keeping with the high octane fun of the first novella, and leveraging the rule of fun and the rule of cool a little more than sense, Mars’ plan and the plot of the book has Mars’ audacious plan to rescue Mookie from his imprisonment, once she finds out where he is being held, is one that is a classic of prison dramas. That is, Mars intends to start by being voluntarily captured herself, then find Mookie in the prison and bust the two of them out. Maybe do some collateral damage to MEPHISTO along the way. Correction: definitely do collateral damage to MEPHISTO along the way and lots of it. Easy, right?
Predictably, her “easy” plan does not precisely go to her expectations, and Mars is caught in a highwire act of trying to maintain her autonomy, fend off the ambitions of the staff of the moon sized Homan Sphere facility to use her as a weapon, find Mookie in such a huge facility, and manage to get out with him. Doctor Rathnam, the warden of the Homan sphere prison, knows exactly who and what Mars is. Mars’ need to overcome someone even more ambitious and dangerous than Commander Briggs ever was adds fuel to the fire. The good Doctor’s surprises for Mars makes our protagonist have to work on the fly, improvise, and figure out new solutions to suddenly emergent problems. The scenes in the prison are some of the best in the book: Mars’ snarky attitude and direct force methods versus Doctor Rathnam attempting to conform her and mold her into what she wants Mars to be. With more than a dollop of the old ultraviolence.
Void Black Shadow expands the universe White has created, and offers a serious change in focus for his protagonist. If Killing Gravity was a coming of age and powers story for Mars, then this followup novella is Mars learning not about what her powers can do, but what she wants to do with those powers—and who she wants to be. The continued theme and through line of Mars learning to want to help others and allow them to help her is one that shows progress and character growth in this volume as well. Mars is much less a feral solitary than at the start of Killing Gravity, but she’s still working through her issues in a believable and organic way.
Those character beats are leavened throughout the book, as Mars is faced with it at turns again and again. There is no magic bullet of personality change that makes Mars into a trusting, caring, teamwork oriented soul, but the events of this novella, on top of and compounded with the first, continue to slowly show her that her solitary way is not necessary the right way. There is also a subtle theme of “creating what you fear” running through the novella, as the forces who have Mars captive are convinced she is part of a greater overall challenge to their authority than her cockamamie plan to rescue one person.
In the unspooling of the plot, Mars takes on that mantle of acting for others, being a leader, even as she herself doesn’t quite realize that she’s doing it. I appreciate that tension between Mars’ attempts to stay focused on her singular goal of rescuing Mookie, even as the greater gears of what is happening around her sometimes sync and sometimes clash. There is a definite sense of an aura of chaos to being in and around a voidwitch, and the novella captures that expertly. This makes the reading experience even more fun, as the action, just by Mars’ nature, doesn’t flag or get bogged down. It does mean that the aforementioned character beats and pauses are engineered with precision, keeping the novella a page turner full of action, but reaching beyond it for more, for a story that doesn’t neglect Mars’ need as a person to grow and change, and succeeding.
I do detect an Empire Strikes Back motif at the epilogue of Void Black Shadow, a pause and a breath, perhaps, before White continues on with Mars’ story and his own Return of the Jedi. I for one certainly look forward to seeing where Mars’ story goes from here.
Void Black Shadow is available from Tor.com Publishing.
An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).