Final Days was one of the most fascinating and refreshingly accessible science fiction reads I had last year (review here). In that, Gary Gibson combined intriguing characters with mindtwisting ideas and environments plus a plot that belted along. Stealing Light, published in late 2007 and reissued in 2013, is space opera and a very different novel, not least because it’s the first in a trilogy, but it shares many of those traits which make Gary Gibson’s science fiction so much fun to read.
Set in the 25th century, mankind has become an explorer of space and a settler of new worlds but it hasn’t done it under its own steam, or without rules. The Shoal, a rather curious, long-lived tentacled fish species, has given mankind the gift of faster-than-light (FTL) travel, but only within its own ships and only within a certain area. Humans are not allowed to develop their own FTL technology and if the Shoal decide that they want a planet settled by humans then they are perfectly within their rights to boot them off and make the colonists homeless. This has rarely happened but when it does the repercussions are immense. This can be seen in the vicious war waged between the exiled Uchidans, a mystical religious people, and the Freehold, a society that is built solely upon martial prowess, false imprisonment and duels, into whose territory the Uchidans are placed.
When the Freeholders discover in the margins of permitted space a starship that appears to be far older than the Shoal and yet has FTL technology, mayhem breaks loose. The Shoal, threatened by this discovery and ominous portents, isn’t going to allow Freehold to ‘steal’ the vessel. Complicating matters further is that the mysterious ship itself can be flown only by a ‘machine-head’, an outlawed, lethal, augmented human being, despised by Freeholders.
Our heroine is one such ‘machine-head’, Dakota Merrick, a young woman that we first meet taking part in a massacre. Stealing Light is a novel that opens with a shocking start. She is the heart of the story, caught between numerous worlds, not entirely herself, but despite her potential to do great harm she is immensely vulnerable. She is paired with her ship, which is almost sentient, and one of the most vivid scenes of the novel is when Dakota takes shelter against the furry inside wall of her ship and the vessel itself gives her comfort.
This gentleness contrasts starkly with the violent code of the Freeholders, although one, Corso, an archaeologist of sorts and needed to work on the ancient vessel, has the potential to become a friend. And then there’s Trader-In-Faecal-Matter-Of-Animals (Trader for short), a Shoal agent who, floating in his bubble of water containing little fish for food, is out to influence Dakota’s mind.
Nothing is quite what it seems in Stealing Light. No character can be trusted – including by us – and the worlds we encounter are laced with dangers as well as pleasures. Gibson is a master of startling environments in space and he works wonders here. Especially memorable are the headless, chained and tattooed zombie bodyguards and the monstrous planet killers. Hanging over it all is the slaughter of Port Gabriel.
Dakota herself is an enigma, not least because you sense that she hardly knows herself, but she is well worth getting to know through the pages of Stealing Light. I would have liked to have spent more time with Trader and to have learned more about the Shoal and the creators of the mysterious vessel but this is part one of three and Stealing Light sets the scene well for what is to come in Nova War and Empire of Light. As with Final Days, Stealing Light is an accessible and fast read that is laced with mysteries, twists and wonders.
The Shoal trilogy has been reissued by Tor this year, providing the perfect excuse to read – or re-read – the novels.