On mature reflection, I feel that Drew Williams’ first two novels (last year’s The Stars Now Unclaimed and now this year’s A Chain Across The Dawn) share certain commonalities with the first Mass Effect trilogy—not least showing a lot of individual, ground-based combat in a space opera universe, a universe that feels wide and strange and full of weird shit at the edges, and a universe populated with a large number of species whose thought processes and cultural developments seem reasonably similar to humans, for all their morphological differences. There’s also a bunch of oddly creepy shit, and a significant interest in found-family narratives.
Though perhaps I’m a bit biased, because I really liked Mass Effect and A Chain Across The Dawn reminded me of it tonally quite strongly.
Either way, Williams writes space opera thrillers with high-octane fast-paced action. In his first novel, The Stars Now Unclaimed, he introduced a first-person protagonist whose name, we eventually learn, is Jane: an old soldier in a galaxy at war, who’s never not been a fighter. She recruits or rescues gifted children—children who have developed telekinetic or telepathic or otherwise odd powers—for an organisation called the Justified. Somewhere over a century ago, the Justified set off the “pulse,” a wave that propagated out across the galaxy, making high technology impossible on many worlds and in many places. The Justified believe the pulse will return, and they’re now engaged in trying to mitigate the effects of such a return—and figure out how to prevent the slow genocide of the artificially-made species known as the Barious, whose factories have not worked since the pulse’s activation.
A Chain Across The Dawn takes place three years after the conclusion of The Stars Now Unclaimed. Instead of Jane, the viewpoint character is now Esa, the teenage girl who Jane rescued in The Stars Now Unclaimed and whose unusually strong, well-controlled telekinetic powers saw them both pursued by other factions who wanted to use Esa for their own ends. But Esa chose to stick with the Justified, and with Jane. She’s spent the last three years getting an education from the Justified, as well as working with and learning from Jane as they recruit children together.
A Chain Across The Dawn opens with Esa and Jane on another pulsed planet, this one a very war-torn one. They’re looking for a gifted child, and though they find him—Sho, capable of turning on fusion reactors with his mind—they also find that the city he lives in is under siege. And the locality doesn’t seem to be quite as pulsed as their previous information told them it would be: something is permitting the local warring factions to use technology that’s ordinarily unusable on worlds suffering from the pulse to this degree.
The implications for the future of the Barious are pretty significant. But first Esa and Jane have to fight their way out past technology that shouldn’t be working. And witness a nuclear explosion that shouldn’t be able to happen.
That’s when a figure flies out of the heart of the nuclear blast in pursuit of Esa, Jane, and Sho: a figure their weapons don’t really seem able to damage. A strange, armoured being, it might be made entirely of energy—and if Esa and Jane can survive its initial attack, they’re going to have to pursue it and find out what it wants and if it can be captured. Because the diminishment of the pulse seems to be linked to its presence, and the future of the Barious depends on a cure for the pulse.
This new enemy is also interested in gifted children. And in murder. Esa and Jane’s first attempt to follow its trail leads them to a space station on which nothing is left living. They escape with—perhaps—some information, but the tables are turned and once again they’ve become the pursued. With the aid of a person from Jane’s past, they figure out what kind of being their enemy could possibly be—and they discover that some of the answers they’re looking for may await them on the abandoned research station where Esa was born. It seems their enemy visited it shortly after Esa was taken from there, in search of… well. That’s the question, isn’t it?
An apocalyptic showdown awaits them.
This is a fast-paced, well-put-together space opera thriller, which barrels past any plot holes with verve, aplomb, and entertaining explosions. It’s not light on character development, either: Esa is very much figuring out her place in the world, and the compromises—and consequences—attendant on her choices. Her voice is similar to Jane’s in The Stars Now Unclaimed, but her attitude is distinct—and both are deeply compelling.
A novel about found families, choices, imperfect compromises, consequences and consciences, with a certain meditation on morality and necessity underlying the explosions, A Chain Across The Dawn is a worthy sophomore effort from a writer to watch. I enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to seeing whatever Williams does next.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.