In the near future, humans have gone beyond simple space travel. By the year 4054, multiple solar systems are inhabited, and taking a spaceship is as commonplace as taking an aeroplane.
Unfortunately, not everything about the future is so advanced. The central planets, led by Earth, have risen high at the expense of cheap labour on distant worlds. Dissent is widespread and arrests are common. Sometimes prisoners are released; sometimes they disappear without a trace, sent to labour camps in other solar systems.
When Ames Emerys receives a letter telling him that his brother Callum has died en route to the remote planet of Kilnin, he takes the first ship he can off Earth, desperate for answers. But the secrets Ames uncovers prove far more dangerous than he could have imagined.
And trouble isn’t far behind.
Title: Dust & Lightning | Author: Rebecca Crunden | Publisher: Self-published | Pub Date: Fifth of February, 2020 | Pages: 122 | ISBN13: 978-1096623670 | Genre: Science Fiction | Language: English | Source: Author/Publisher| Unstarred Review
Dust & Lightning Review
Dust & Lightning opens on a future earth, with our protagonist waiting to board a ship to take him into outer space. Ames is alert and on guard and quickly senses trouble. He is also able to effectively avoid this trouble and achieve his goal.
Much of his motivation is presented through narrative. His brother was convicted of a serious crime and sent to a prison on an outer planet. Then, Ames received word that his brother has died. However, he also hears from family who live on the same planet his brother was imprisoned on. They are certain they saw his brother and that he’s alive.
Initially, I was hopeful that this would be a good catalyst for a future with some interesting worldbuilding and good action. However, a considerable portion of the book was lost to inaction. It started solidly, floundered in the middle, picked up steam and then delivered a disappointing conclusion.
Ames is reckless. Despite his need to lay low, he draws attention to himself quickly after boarding the ship. This doesn’t have any serious consequences, though, so he quickly meddles in a domestic situation. While this suggests a certain quality of character, it was an exceptional risk for him to take, particularly given his own mission.
Ames also happens to stumble on random information that has no apparent connection to his brother that he isn’t even looking for and he has no reason to think it relates to his brother’s disappearance. He kept the information anyway, which (of course) proves to be relevant later.
Possibilities for tension and drama are quickly sidestepped. Ames is wanted and the ship’s crew had been searching for him early on, but he is able to get off at his destination with no real concern. And, despite the fact that he received communication from family on his destination planet prior to his departure, the government is unable to reach the planet to have them watching for Ames. I found it hard to believe it wasn’t possible for the government to communicate with the colony prior to Ames’ arrival. In fact, they had placed a travel ban on Ames before he had done a single thing, so clearly they thought he might go offworld to find out what happened to his brother, which means someone on Earth was communicating with this distant colony. Having people at his presumed destination who could intercept him would have been standard operating procedure under the circumstances.
A notable section of the book has little action or tension. Information falls far too easily into inexperienced hands and the authorities—who are supposedly ruthless killers who have been effectively disappearing people successfully for a long time—leave crucial information where it can be tripped over when not even being searched for. The security systems the authorities have in place are no match for a small-time criminal and a lawyer.
The story does get stronger in the last third of the book. That is a good thing. It was almost enough to cover the weak points, but it is undermined by the novel’s conclusion.
I prefer to try to evaluate books based on what I think the author intended to accomplish with them, rather than simply what I hoped the book would be. The back copy is usually helpful in determining what the author’s objectives were, but in this case the description focuses more on the worldbuilding than the actual story. With Dust & Lightning, I ultimately felt like there were several developments that happened prior to the start of the story that may have been more effective starting points. We could have had an opportunity to learn about Ames through his actions and readers could have seen his skills at work on Earth before he left. We could have had a sense of his apprehension about offworld travel. And we would have seen first-hand the pollution on Earth and how it contrasted with the outer planet Ames ultimately visits.
The author could have reduced the time spent on the ship traveling to the outer planet, which does little to develop the overall story. Also, with greater tension leading to Ames’ departure from Earth, it would have allowed for more tension when he meets Violet, and it would have been interesting if we’d had more doubt about her motives and seen Ames really struggle with trusting her. He seems to trust her with great ease. Ames has been committing crimes for years and knows the authorities are after him. It seemed unlikely he would have trusted anyone so easily, especially since he believed his brother’s life hung in the balance. He did not want to leave Earth and only did so because of how serious the situation was, which should have emphasized just how serious he believed the situation was. In spite of that, he jeopardized his mission quickly by trusting a virtual stranger.
The other issue with Violet is that she is clearly presented as a battered spouse, but has no PTSD and easily trusts another man. Even if they aren’t sexual partners, she is cohabiting with him on a lengthy journey and slides easily into her life of crime. Her character development was minimal, at best, and lacked credibility as presented. Frankly, even if you love someone you can get agitated by spending that much time in close quarters with them. Violet and Ames never seem to get on each other’s nerves.
Starting the story on Earth would have presented an opportunity to develop the government’s motives. It also would have allowed the reader to see the communication between Ames and his family. This would have established them more clearly in the reader’s minds early on. Overall, their development worked within the story as told because they entered the story when there was more action, which meant they weren’t purely developed through narrative backstory and tell writing.
I actually did like most characters for what they were within the story told, but I found myself losing interest partway through because of the lack of plot and character development. The work had a chance to redeem itself with a solid final quarter, but this was undermined by a cliffhanger ending that left the story unresolved. When I reached the last page my exact words were, “That’s a fucking shitty ending.” And it is. Cliffhangers are dangerous territory for authors because they leave the reader unfulfilled.
There are some stories that are constructed with a victory arc. They begin with the hero facing an obstacle and overcoming it. The hero is then confronted with a bigger problem, and much of the story follows their efforts to overcome that obstacle successfully. When these protagonists are faced with a new challenge at the end of the book, it can still offer a sense of completion, because the story’s core arc has been designed to establish that the hero will always find a way to be victorious. This is not that type of story. This is a story about a man who is trying to find out the truth about why his noble brother has been convicted of a crime that he is sure his brother didn’t commit, whether he’s alive or dead, and rescue him if he’s alive. In the midst of that he spends a lot of time watching TV and hanging out on a spaceship with a woman, lucks his way into relevant information and uncovers a government conspiracy, but does not publicly expose it. It’s actually incredible that the protagonist accomplishes what he does in the course of the story, and there’s no reason to believe that a competent government, that has been successfully making political opponents disappear for years, could have been so inept.
I am a fan of series books, and I do not mind loose ends that may be addressed in subsequent works, but to clearly end the story with what could be argued to be the most dramatic development of the entire book left this reader frustrated.
The squandered potential of the premise and lack of an actual ending made this a subpar story for this reader, which was truly disappointing because the concept held the promise of a much stronger offering.
2 out of 5 stars
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