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Promises Stronger than Darkness

PROMISES STRONGER THAN DARKNESS by Charlie Jane Anders

Titan Books, p/b, £9.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

One of the penalties of encountering a trilogy in the third volume is there is the danger of not knowing what is going on. It can be difficult to relate to characters and a situation that may have been well developed in earlier volumes and where the author has made an assumption that the reader has been following them from volume one. A good author will give enough information for the new reader to catch up enough within the first chapter. Charlie Jane Anders has received a lot of acclaim for her 2016 novel All the Birds in the Sky, it having been nominated for or won a number of awards.

            Promises Stronger than Darkness is a very different book. It doesn’t feel sophisticated. Coming to it cold, with no previous knowledge of the trilogy, the characters come across as very young but are doing things that would be normally expected of seasoned space farers. It doesn’t help to be told that Elza, who appears to be human, has become a space princess. The details of this are presumably elaborated in a previous volume, but she does wear a crown, which enables the Ardenii to feed her information. The Ardenii are alien and may well be computer-generated.

            Elza and her friends, who all seem to be of a similar age, are aboard a spaceship, the bizarrely named Undisputed Training Bra Disaster. The crew is a mix of human and alien, and by this time, we are expected to know who they are, what they look like and what their race is. The dynamics among this crew are confusing. Anders has gone to great trouble to demonstrate tolerance. There is a mixture of genders and alien races which cross boundaries. While human gender fluid relationships are normalised in this setting, I have problems with the inter-species pairings. The aliens appear too human in everything except appearance. It is unlikely that anything more than friendship could occur between beings that have evolved in very different environments, yet we are meant to believe that sexual pairings are occurring.

            This disparate crew are being hunted by the Royal Fleet and the military force known as the Compassion. While the mass forces are chasing around after one small ship, the galaxy is in serious trouble. An alien race, way back in time, set a ‘time bomb’ in motion. Small black holes were placed by the suns with habitable planets, and, as this novel begins, they will devour the suns in 300 Earth days. This gang had the time to turn off the mechanism that controlled this event, which is called the Bereavement. They don’t know where it is. First, they need to steal an ancient artefact resembling a chalice. That in itself will not help them, but to get it to reveal its secret, Elza will have to break into the Space Palace, where her life will be forfeited if she gets caught.

            While the novel is packed full of incidents and the gang is working against a time limit, there are factors that do not work. Many adventures in space equip their ships with FTL drives, the mechanism of which is advanced technology. Here, they seem to be able to leap huge distances in space in very short periods of time. It is almost as if they are driving a car between towns. With the instantaneous communication (must be alien technology) and if they succeed, the belief that the moment they turn off the Bereavement, all the threatening black holes will vanish puts the novel in the realms of the kind of fantasy SF prevalent in the old pulps where the adventure way key and adherence to science was minimal.

            Ultimately, this book is not for me and I was disappointed. However, there may be many young teens who will enjoy this, especially as most of the key characters are female.

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