K.B. Spangler’s 2021 coming-of-age space opera The Blackwing War is the first book in her Deep Witches Trilogy. It is set in the same universe as Spangler’s 2017 Stoneskin.
Tembi Stoneskin was rescued from abject poverty when the Deep, the vast, enigmatic entity that facilitates transgalactic teleportation, took a shine to her. As long as the Deep retains its affection for Tembi, she will be an ageless Witch, stepping from world to world as it pleases her. There is little chance Tembi will alienate the Deep.
There is, however, every chance she will alienate her superiors in the Witch hierarchy. Youthful Tembi is that most dreaded of beings, an idealist.
The Witch governing body (Lancaster, on the planet Found1) is led by Domino. As ageless as Tembi but centuries older, Domino is determined to protect Lancaster from vagaries of current politics by steering a strictly neutral path. This means not taking sides in wars. This policy means not just refusing to move troops and weapons to war zones. It also means not transporting refugees out of warzones.
This no-refugee-assistance policy isn’t just theoretical. Blackwing forces are determined to make the galaxy great again by restoring the natural order: unenhanced humans ruling over inferior genetically engineered humans2, a group to which Tembi belongs. Conquest by Blackwing means brutal oppression at best, mass murder at worst. Since colonists too poor to afford terraforming tended to opt for altering themselves to fit possible colony worlds, the Sabenta (the coalition of modified humans) is too poor to afford a military as strong as the Blackwing forces. Without any help from the Deep, running away is also difficult or impossible3. Lancaster’s policy is tantamount to turning a blind eye to genocide.
Or it was. Due to events in Stoneskin, the Witches have begun intervening in minor ways, such as transporting refugees. Tembi sets herself a further chore: disarming bombs (set by both sides) with the aid of the Deep. Her task is both unpleasant and stressful.
The unpleasant routine of Tembi’s life is disrupted by two even more unpleasant revelations.
The first is that someone has developed and used a device of terrible destructive power on an uninhabited moon. The Deep draws Tembi’s attention to the shattered moon. Unfortunately, because of the communications gulf between Deep and human, the Deep is unable to explain (possibly even unable to understand) who is responsible.
The second: Tembi’s fellow Witch and friend Moto vanishes. How this might have happened is inexplicable; the Deep keeps track of all of its Witches. (That’s how Witches can convince the Deep to move people and cargos.)
Moto is found, but in a condition that raises more disquieting questions. Someone appears to have taken him out of play without quite murdering him. That someone used a chemical weapon designed to interfere with higher cognitive functions. Who would do this and why?
These are questions that lead back to the messy politics triggered by the Witches’ tepid intervention in the Blackwing War, questions whose answers Tembi may not want to learn.
Something that may come as a surprise to readers new to this Space Witch series: this isn’t hard SF.
A trope that seems to be a lot more durable than I expected, given the last decade or two, is that it’s possible to embarrass or shame your average genocidal racist. This point will come up next week, but the idea that exposing shenanigans to the light of day will inspire anything in the miscreants aside from a smirking shrug and business as usual seems poorly supported by the evidence. Still, to quote Pratchett,
YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
One of the complicating factors in Witch politics4 is that the Deep tends to befriend baseline human Witches who are older and far better off than Tembi. Tembi is also one of the gene-altered. She’s a double outlier. The other Witches find it easy to turn a blind eye to Blackwing atrocities. The mass graves about which no one speaks are not filled with their relatives.
I don’t think the resemblance to the US caste system is accidental. The same goes for the similarity between the way the average person in the street (in this setting) manages, until their nose is rubbed in the obvious truth, to not think about just what it is Blackwing is doing with the surplus-to-needs modified humans. And ignore the fact that various law and military organizations are doing pretty much exactly what would one expect, given the available evidence. Realizing that there are real-world parallels could be pretty disquieting for readers, if they were not protected by the human ability to decline to connect the dots.
The Blackwing War is an effective introduction to the series; one can begin here without reading Stoneskin (although of course I have, because unlike some reviewers, I prefer when possible to start series I plan to review at the beginning). There is the temptation with volumes one to end an unresolved plot and a cliff-hanger or perhaps to simply stop. Spangler is too good an author for that. One can read this volume without needing to read the next two to get closure (although of course I will read the next two). That said, there are some interesting revelations here that I expect will tempt readers to buy just one more volume … or perhaps two.
1: Stock James grumble: this is set as far in the future as the Bronze Age Collapse is in our past. However, there’s not much sign of the sort of culture changes one might expect over such a long time span. I know, it’s a book-sales killer if the reader has no idea what’s going on or why people are doing what they are doing, but nonetheless … this degree of cultural stasis is implausible, even given Witch immortality.
2: Obviously, nobody counts the acceptable, common tweaks that supposedly baseline humans apply to their kids as genetic engineering.
3: There is non-Deep-based faster-than-light travel, but since of the four hundred-billion-star systems in the Milky Way there are only “a thousand habitable planets in the galaxy, a hundred times that number which could be habitable if the engineers tinkered with landmasses and genomes,” it follows that distances between systems must be huge.
4: Another significant complicating factor is that because the Deep has learned to keep its favourite pets alive for as long as they keep its interest, it’s incredibly hard to shift entrenched administrators out of their positions. You may think it’s hard to pry power of the hands of the old guard in your favourite local little theatre, try it when each of them is older than Switzerland and showing no signs of aging.