Having read and enjoyed Colin F. Barnes’s thoroughly entertaining post-apocalyptic novel Salt, I was delighted to hear that he has embarked (with T.F. Grant) on a space opera series set in a space trap, the Xantoverse. Venture is the first in the series and introduces the reader to the few surviving crew members of the Venture, a colony vessel carrying the last remnants of humanity to safety, away from a ferocious war between the Crown and the alien Markesians.
Caught in a fire fight, Venture finds itself blasted into this lethal pocket of dark space, in which little works but everything has a price. This is the wild west of space. With the captain reduced to a cowardly wreck on his knees, it is left to Sara Lorelle, the Venture’s navigator, to negotiate for their survival with the prince of this frightening realm, Tai, who, along with his small and rather intriguingly formed crew, is buried up to his neck in debt to the queen of it all, his mother Miriam Cauder. This is not a woman to be trifled with.
Venture never lets the tempo drop. The action starts on the very first page and it doesn’t stop until the last. This is a world of monstrous, half derelict, alien space stations, with scares and wonders scattered on every deck. Alien species abound here, many comprising some of the countless factions that fight and barter for every scrap of energy and materials. Strangely, the most sinister and deadly are the Drift, bushlike intellectuals that can kill and torture with ease, especially if the crime involves the smuggling of paper and books.
Sara and her crew, including Bookworm and the beautiful and mysteriously gifted Hentian twins, soon make their mark in this disturbing environment, quickly adapting to life by barter and proving their spirit through courage and connivance and, despite the carefully polished arrogance of Tai, they find themselves caught up in his world. And that is when the adventure shifts up yet another gear. There are monsters out there.
Venture is a substantial novel that races along and is always entertaining. I soon grew to like Sara very much. She’s an interesting woman, fighting the stereotypes, including those of sexuality. Bookworm has his moments and his experiences with the Drifts are memorable.
This is a light read and the repeated (and rather irritating) use of ‘freck’ suggests it’s been tamed down for a younger audience. There is also much that’s familiar – Venture is a frequent reminder of TV (and novel) classics, especially Firefly, Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5 and Farscape. This is an ambitious novel (which feels as if it was fun to write) with some intriguing elements that kept me reading but on the whole I think that Venture would best suit young readers after a fun introduction to the wonders and thrills of space opera.