John Appel’s 2021 Assassin’s Orbit is a science fiction mystery novel.
The planet Ileri is on the verge of joining the Commonwealth, a development not all of its citizens welcome. The last thing Ileri needs is a lurid mass murder. However, Ileri Station, high above the planet for which it is named, finds itself the scene of its first mass killing in seventeen years. Among the victims is Saed Tahir, grandson of private investigator Noo Okereke’s business partner. This makes the murders very personal for Noo.
The discovery of the Commonwealth Consul’s corpse amidst the other victims means that the mass murder is also an interstellar incident.
Centuries before, Ileri was one of fourteen worlds settled by refugees who fled an Earth lost to a particularly insidious technology. Many of these worlds have cohered into a Commonwealth. Ileri is one of the few independent worlds left. The death of the Consul is a black eye for the pro-unity government. It is up to Police chief Toiwa to uncover the killers.
The next untoward development is the sudden, uninvited appearance of Saljuan Space Dominance Vehicle Iwan Godeslaw . Salju is very much not part of the Commonwealth. In fact, it could be termed one of the Commonwealth’s rivals. The Accords of Year 83 Post Exile grant rights for unannounced inspections (an ongoing effort to ensure that there is no reoccurrence of the technology from which the Exiles fled). However, invoking the right to inspection at this particular juncture is rude. Dropping a major military vessel into Ileri’s system is even ruder.
Salju is known for being particularly doctrinaire where forbidden technologies are concerned. The inspection is to determine if Ileri is dabbling in proscribed mind-control technology. Since all of the Exiles fled an Earth where the population was being rapidly converted to docile slaves, the very suggestion that anyone in the system would develop such mechanisms is an insult.
It’s too bad, therefore, that the murder investigation keeps turns up persons of interest who act like someone else is pulling their strings. Salju may reject technologies that could lead to the development of proscribed machines, but that does not cover total conversion devices. Best not to think about what the Space Dominance Vehicle could do to Ileri if the craft got proof that their suspicions are correct.
The sudden coup that erupts on Ileri almost comes as a welcome distraction.
A fascinating extra: the author wrote his novel in 2016, little expecting the next five years to play out as they did (and we haven’t even got to the unspeakable horrors of 2023, and their ghastly sequel in 2024). As he mentions, the idea of cops who are there to protect the public seems very … hard to believe now. At least the author can take comfort that audiences should be comfortable with the idea of extremist political coups.
The blurb for this is “Golden Girls meets The Expanse with a side of Babylon Five .” Golden Girls because the lead protagonists are older women. The Expanse thanks to humans dabbling in things humanity was not meant to dabble. Babylon Five … to be honest, I am not really clear on that one. It’s interesting that of those three, all are television series (1) but only one is anything like a contemporary series. Still, nice to see fiction that acknowledges old people exist and can be useful.
The author has definite quirks:
A: sudden unconsciousness marking the end of a scene;
B: the odds that any character will get the damage deposit back on any vehicle they enter is worse than the odds for any character in a Jack McDevitt novel. (This will make sense to you if you’ve read any of his books.)
C: Appel is very comfortable with a cast of thousands, despite his novel not being particularly long.
The downside of C is that there being so many characters and so few pages to develop them, none of the characters are particularly detailed. Instead, each has a few defining characteristics.
On the plus side, the plot is very energetic and provides a diverse assortment of action scenes, from alleyway scuffles to political violence to deep space battles. There’s also the interesting twist that the doctrinaire fanatics may in fact be the right ones in this particular case, not that anyone on Ileri is willing to be collateral damage to save their corner of the universe. As well, many readers may be intrigued by a novel whose principal characters are older women.
1: And one is based on a book series.