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Hearts as Black as Coal

The Trove

By Tobias S. Buckell 

27 Sep, 2018

Space Opera That Doesn't Suck


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Tobias S. Buckell’s 2018 The Trove is a standalone SF adventure novel. 

Interstellar travel has not eliminated social stratification. Earth is home to oligarchs whose wealth is hard to measure. In contrast, the wealth of Jane Hawkins and her two mothers, Sadayya and Tia, is very easy to measure: it is the Nelson Inn, located in the unfashionable part of Sargasso Port. Customers are few, the inn is struggling, and Tia is slowly dying of an incurable disease. 

A more prosperous inn would have turned away rigger Villem Osteonidus. Not only does the cyborg lacks any personal charm, he’s a drug addict. But the Hawkins Inn needs every customer it can get. Villem gets a room, one his hosts expect him to occupy for only as long as it takes for the drugs to kill him. 

Villem has far worse problems than his addiction. 

Villem’s apparent paranoia is rooted in reality. He is being hunted by other star sailors, who are determined to recover something from the burned-out starman. Villem exploits Jane’s teenaged boredom, angst, and curiosity about the stars to rope her into his struggle against his mysterious pursuers. This bold gambit fails to save Villem, but it has a profound effect on Jane. 

Jane’s mother Sadayya forbade Jane to install implants, believing that her daughter would be happier and wiser experiencing an unaugmented world. Villem illicitly provided Jane with implants. What were said to be basic enhancements, sufficient to read the Inn’s virtual menus and open automated doors, prove to be far more sophisticated nanomachines. Villem also passed on the very treasure map that his enemies killed to possess. 

The AI-helmed sparship Sparkflint was once part of the human fleet that vanquished the alien Kai Hanimar. When human merchants persisted in trading with the enemy, Sparkflint turned on them, killing their crews and seizing their goods. When peace came, an increasingly deranged Sparkflint turned pirate. The AI eventually targeted Earth and was eventually hunted and … presumably destroyed. As far as anyone knows, the mad ship is dead, the crew whose minds provided the seed for the AI has been scattered, and its vast treasure lost. 


Villem, one of the surviving crew from Sparkflint, knew where Sparkflints riches were hidden. He hid the map in Jane’s augmentations. Villem’s cryptography was sophisticated enough that nobody can read the map without Jane’s help, nor can they copy it without killing her. Jane is in a very real sense the map, one the avaricious pirates will not hesitate to kill to possess. 

Lady Woodgrove offers a way out. Or something like a way out. Join Woodgrove’s expedition to find the treasure, serve as its map, and Lady Woodgrove will do everything in her power to keep Jane alive. Jane has little choice but to agree. 

Lady Woodgrove is perfectly sincere. Her crew, on the other hand, sees little reason to keep Woodgrove, her close allies, or Jane alive once they find the treasure. And of course, Sparkflint took steps to ensure nobody who stumbled over its trove would live long enough to carry off its hoard.… 


This seems like an appropriate moment to admit that I’ve never read Treasure Island, either the children’s censored version or the full one. I have also managed to avoid seeing any of the fifty or so adaptations of Treasure Island, with the possible exception of Muppet Treasure Island. There are reviewers who could discuss at great length the parallels between Buckell’s source material and his novel, but I am not one of them. That said, however unqualified I may be to opine, I will opine. 

The translation from Age of Sail to Age of Star Sail seems to work. The setting is mostly convincing [1], provided you accept the convenient starsailing handwavium. I could have used more info re the political situation (aristocracy, weak government that resorts to privateers rather than building and crewing its own ships). But I was OK with what I got. 

I also liked the choices the author made when imagining the pirate crews. No peg legs and hook hands; just networked minds and cyborg prosthetics. The prosthetics and the networking give the crew near superhuman abilities, but limit their lifespans. Also, there’s a chance of boiling one’s overburdened brain. But what’s that to power and wealth? 

The Trove is a nicely paced short adventure. Younger readers might find some of the murders a little too intense. On the other hand, considering what they can see on TV and in the news, perhaps not. 

The novel functions as a standalone but there’s room here to expand it into a series. Sales permitting, of course. 

The Trove is available here (Amazon). It does not appear to be available from Chapters-Indigo. 

1: I can accept a setting where intangible winds blow between the stars, where vast vessels convey living beings at speeds well in excess of light and that the details of the technology might be such that strong parallels would exist between the age of sail and the age of stars. I draw the line, however, at the conceit that the unfortunates of the future would still be using a measuring system found primarily in the US and Liberia.