Book Review: Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

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By Jacob P. Torres

Find my spoiler-free review of Alex White’s, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.

Cover Description: “Boots Elsworth was a famous treasure hunter in another life, but now she’s washed up. She makes her meager living faking salvage legends and selling them to the highest bidder, but this time she got something real–the story of the Harrow, a famous warship, capable of untold destruction.

Nilah Brio is the top driver in the Pan Galactic Racing Federation and the darling of the racing world–until she witnesses Mother murder a fellow racer. Framed for the murder and on the hunt to clear her name, Nilah has only one lead: the killer also hunts Boots.

On the wrong side of the law, the two women board a smuggler’s ship that will take them on a quest for fame, for riches, and for justice.

What is the book about?

Elizabeth “Boots” Elsworth and Nilah Brio are two women who get swept up in the treasure hunt of a life time. They’re prisoners turned shipmates on a warship turned smuggler’s boat the Capricious. The treasure? The Harrow, the most advanced warship ever made by the dominant empire in the Galaxy. We meet these two ladies in two very different beginnings. Boots Elsworth is scraping out a meager existence selling mostly counterfit treasure maps to anyone that will buy them. Blending a little bit of history, a lot of a good story, and trading on her fame as someone who once actually did find some treasure she is making a living off the gullibility of others when the Capricious rolls into town. Which is bad for Boots since she once sold them a very bad map, and even worse because she used to crew with the Captain of the Capricious back when she was a fighter pilot. Nilah Brio has wealth, fame, and power as the darling of the racing tracks. Her life gets turned upside down when an act of terrorism on the track leads to a racer dead and Nilah facing the blame. In desperation she’s chasing down the only lead she has, that Boots Elsworth might somehow be involved in the shattered wreckage of her life. Both women end up in the brig of the Capricious and that’s when the adventure really kicks off.

What Did I Like About the Book?

MAGIC. A) this was a totally unexpected addition to the book, and B) I’m insanely jealous that Alex White thought of this. You know all those accepted things about Science Fiction that would never actually work, because, you know, physics? I’m talking particle shields, cloaking devices, faster-than-light travel, transporters, instantaneous communication between systems, artificial gravity. In SciFi we’re used to accepting some hand waving and an overuse of the word “quantum” to explain away the unexplainable. White straight up says fuck it. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s not a crocodile, it’s a bloody duck. He devised a system of magic that covered all of that stuff. Now if you want to look at the anti-gravity you check the rune. Need a murderous robot? Call a magician trained to work on machines.

Cruelly taking away magic. One of the two main characters is made muggle in this book. Boots Elsworth is one of a shockingly small number of people with literally no magic. Can’t use it, can’t make it. Conveniently turning her into our point of reference for the unknown in the book. And she still gets to be a bad ass despite this little handicap.

The treasure hunt! I honestly do not know why this plot doesn’t come up more often in SciFi. We all love Indiana Jones, books based around chasing myths from DaVinci Code to the Hobbit have been staples of fantasy and fiction for ages, but rarely do I see them in SciFi, which is a shame because it’s an opportunity to really spread your myths out. You get to invent them instead of having every fifth adventure be related to the Knights Templar.

Who was my Favorite Character?

I’m going with Nilah Brio. I liked Boots a lot, don’t get me wrong, we’re supposed to relate to her and she’s good at that. But Nilah shone because of how much she developed as the book went on. She went from stand-offish and brash to empathetic and compassionate and, well, brash. She saw the world in math and pinpoint turns and adventure and her attitude was often infectious even in the beginning when she could come off as off-putting. She’s the character of the two protagonists that really buys into being a part of this crew and builds relationships both friendships and romantically with the great cast of characters on the Capricious.

One standout honorable mention is Orna, the quartermaster and general havoc-bringer of the Capricious, she’s a war-orphan that lived through a dying planet and turned her considerable skill at mechanic-based magic into protecting herself by crafting an autonomous, death dealing battle armor that follows her around like a protective sheepdog. She’s a really good portrait of a victim of war and how they might survive in a world of advanced technology and reality bending magic.

What Did I Not Like?

The pacing drug a bit in moments of exposition and the story of the conflict that Boots and Cordell (the Captain of the Capricious) felt like a incomplete back story. It stood out as a painting unfinished in an otherwise very vivid world.

The big bad of the book felt like a very generic shadowy-cabal at times and despite delivering a good twist towards the end that really brought a lot of disparate elements together, they felt like the weakest part of the story. They never seemed fleshed out beyond, “Ahoy! Bad Folk.” This felt doubly true of the government that was ostensibly the bad guy’s backer/puppet/creation? It didn’t really have any moments that made it feel like “evil empire™” instead it mostly felt like Tuesday. A Tuesday with adventure sure. But the kind of thing we’re used to waking up and seeing otherwise.

The Verdict!

4.0 out of 5 cups of tea for Big Ship at the edge of the Universe. This book was full of a lot of things that I love to see. Diversity, worldbuilding, LGBTQA+ friendly, inventive but consistent use of technology/magic within story, treasure hunts, great characters. This book has its flaws but they’re not many and they’re more than made up for by the fact that White delivered a great new universe to explore that’s, above all, fun. I haven’t read his other, unrelated, books,  but I hope future books will meet and exceed the standard set in this one, if they do it will be a fun ride. The sequel, A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy, is set out this December and looks to continue the adventures of the crew of the Capricious and I’ll definitely be picking this up.

4 of 5
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 5 cups of tea for Big Ship at the edge of the Universe. This book was full of a lot of things that I love to see. Diversity, worldbuilding, LGBTQA+ friendly, inventive but consistent use of technology/magic within story, treasure hunts, great characters.
Pros Cons
+ Using literal magic to be the answer for the hypothetical magic that permeates science fiction books was a fun, inventive twist. – The big bad needed more development time. The time they got left me feeling like I was looking at a half-finished paint by numbers.
+ Mystery, lost treasures, a colorful world and lots of action made this a delight to tear through. – Pacing struggled in some areas, especially in moments of exposition or clue-batting.
+ Our two protagonists are fun, capable, kick-ass women that in true Yul Brenner fashion take no shit off of nobody. That’s a Cool Runnings Joke. – Like the big bad, some of the worlds and governments felt a little thin, or worse like the kind of horridly common stuff we live with every day.

 

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