The cloaking device used by the titular spaceship to sneak into alien territory feels like a metaphor for the characters in Ian Whates’s bracing space opera. Most of these people have ulterior motives, with the motives of one so ulterior she doesn’t even know them herself. Such duality seems to be a survival mechanism in the world of the novel, because the single honest character dies horribly at the wraithy hands of… Well, read it and see.
Even the cute, furry Mudball needs close watching as he may or may not be the most dangerous entity in the book. Mudball accompanies an enigmatic banker called Drake, whose mission is to accompany Captain Pelquin when the latter borrows large sums to retrieve a secret cache of priceless Elder technology.
Pelquin’s Comet is crewed by competent reprobates who wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near Starfleet. After Pelquin, the most interesting of the original crew is Bren, an ex-soldier turned engineer. Engineer characters are hard to get right and female ones especially, but the author pulls it off here. Yes, Bren is in love with the captain, but spends most of the novel furious with him for one reason or another. She blends the soldier and technical roles traditionally given to male characters with no sense of the issue being forced.
Indeed, one of the best aspects of the novel is its female cast. I preferred them to the men, including Pelquin, who fancies himself as a prime mover in a dangerous universe but often comes across as smug.
Even more striking than Bren is the androgynous, amnesiac Leesa, who joins the crew when Bren’s fellow engineer Monkey is injured in an ambush. Leesa is sexually confused in lovely, believable way. She is also great at unarmed combat and possessed of a thoroughness with technology that is just the right side of obsessive. Once aboard Pelquin’s Comet, Leesa is disturbed by increasingly vivid dreams of combat and conspiracy. These visions come from a past linked with Pelquin’s mission via Drake, who knows Leesa’s real identity but doesn’t reveal it for complex reasons of his own.
Androgyny also features in another engaging character: the female banking executive Terry Reece. Terry has the courage to back Pelquin’s mission, regardless of the feeling there is more to it than he is willing to admit. Although Drake is dispatched as a result of Terry’s intuition, she has a strong sense of leadership in common with Pelquin. Neither are micromanagers and both understand the awkward truth that most results are achieved through trust, despite everyone’s insistence on using either contracts or high-tech spying.
As expected in a story of this kind, there is an abundance of clever gadgets. My favourite is the sample of awesome but useless Elder tech Pelquin uses to impress Terry. However, most of the cities have cars, shops and other commercial structures we are evolving out of in 2017. It may be that there needs to be some familiarity amid the exoticism, and the backwater nature of the planets is emphasised, but there is sometimes a sense that we could just as easily be on Earth, now, rather than on an alien world in the future.
A related cavil is the use of descriptive cliché (‘a certain rakish charm’), as if the author is in a hurry. These phrases distract from a solidly-written SF adventure with some great inventions, like a disturbing but funny version of hyperspace that literally drains people of the will to live.
More intriguing still is a world inhabited by both humans and the insect-like Xters. Since the Elders disappeared thousands of years ago, and the devious Mudball disguises himself as a genetically engineered pet, the Xters appear to be the only other advanced race in the galaxy. The world they share with a research party of humans is recollected in snatches by Leesa, who lived there with her fathers. There is a welcome touch of dangerous otherness to this environment. Hopefully we’ll see more of it in future novels in the sequence, while the Xters themselves are a source of some splendid plot twists.
The sequel to ‘Pelquin’s Comet’, ‘The Ion Raider’, is out now.