2021’s Sounding Dark is the first volume in Jo Graham’s Calpurnian Wars series.
Interstellar great power Calpurnia eschews subtle hints when brute force will do as well. Thus, the initial indications that the matter of Eresh is once again occupying an autocrat’s mind come when two Eresh ships are ambushed and annihilated by a Calpurnian task force.
Arriving too late to intervene, the officers and crew of Steel Nine search for survivors. They find one. However, the survivor is neither from Eresh nor Calpurnia. Bister is Tainted, born and raised on the interdicted world of Inanna, around which the space facility Eresh orbits. They have no business being in space.
This is not Bister’s most unusual characteristic.
By the time Steel Nine arrived under the command of Adelita Massacre, enough time had elapsed for Bister’s space suit to have long since run out of air. Logic dictates that Bister should be dead. Bister being very much alive suggests other factors in play, factors as yet unclear.
A more pressing matter: the ambush almost certainly heralds the end of an era when Calpurnia consigned Eresh to contemptuous neglect. Populated by the descendants of criminals — thus surnames like Massacre — Eresh is a black-market trading post, providing a patina of legality to illegal transactions. Eresh’s success threatens Calpurnia’s bottom line. Eresh must therefore be brought back in line.
Calpurnians are prone to self-righteous malice. Surrender will be rewarded by the immediate imposition of flamboyantly draconian and cruel regulations. However, while Eresh has enough armed ships to seriously inconvenience the Calpurnians, they do not have enough to win. Calpurnians being vindictive, the consequences of failed resistance would be even worse than surrender.
However, the pious Navigator believes there is a third option. The Navigator is certain that Bister survived because the ancient, semi-mythical ghost ship Sounding Dark intervened. If Sounding Dark could be found and convinced to side with Eresh, then perhaps Eresh could be saved.
If Sounding Dark even exists…
Some day I’d like to read a book in which all of the hero’s hopes are placed in an ancient, legendary artifact that is either woefully outmoded or entirely non-existent. This is not that novel.
Calpurnia makes an artform of holding grudges: following the war that overthrew the previous, Company-run regime, surviving Company executives and functionaries were relocated to Inanna and then forbidden access to advanced technology in perpetuity. As far as Calpurnia is concerned, the current inhabitants of Inanna are as guilty as their ancestors.
Calpurnians apply similar logic to Eresh: it was used in the past as a dumping ground for criminals, therefore the current population must, by logic of culture and genetics, be criminals. This is absurd and unjust and would be even more so if Eresh were not in fact a hive of illegal commerce.
I found the whole “we’re not responsible for our ancestors’ crimes” angle a bit off-putting, mainly because in the modern era the only people I hear that from are people who’ve greatly benefited from their ancestors’ crimes and don’t have any intention of making amends.
I cannot like everything I read. This would be an example. It’s not because the characters are insufficient. They aren’t. The antagonists are delightfully loathsome. Likewise, the prose is acceptable. It’s just that the worldbuilding rubs me the wrong way . Eresh is implausibly evenly matched with Calpurnia, given that one is a former prison space station and the other a planetary economy. Sounding Dark is oddly capable, given its age. The novel needs these to be true for there to be a plot that isn’t “the good guys run away,” but the fine tuning rang false for me. Oh, well. If experience teaches us anything, it is that other readers enjoy novels like this more than I do.
1: Also, light sails are nowhere near as effective as this novel needs them to be. Not an issue in any way unique to this novel: see also McIntyre’s Starfarers, which features an O’Neill-scale habitat rendered implausibly mobile thanks to solar sails.