The front cover for The Fractured Dark by Megan O' Keefe. There is a man and woman dressed in dark clothes on a walkway high above a space ship. The woman is carrying a gun, and the man walks a little behind her.

The Fractured Dark

The Fractured Dark by Megan E. O’Keefe

The Fractured Dark by Megan E. O’Keefe

Orbit, pb, £9.99

Reviewed by Sarah Deeming

The front cover for The Fractured Dark by Megan O' Keefe. There is a man and woman dressed in dark clothes on a walkway high above a space ship. The woman is carrying a gun, and the man walks a little behind her.

Aware of the canus running through their pathway, a primitive lifeforce that takes control of its host, Naira Sharp and Tarquin Mercator are working with the Conservator to discover a cure for the infection. But Tarquin’s father, Acaelus Mercator, has run away with humanity’s remaining stores of fuel and plunges the ruling families of MERIT into chaos. Tarquin is the only member of his family left, so he steps into the limelight. But Tarquin has never wanted to be in charge; he is a scientist, a doctor; however, if he can turn his expertise to the problem of saving humanity from the canus, then there may be a way.

But canus is sentient and in control of most of the surviving human population. How can Naira and Tarquin tell friends from foes when everyone is infected? Can they even trust themselves?

The second book in Megan E. O’Keefe’s The Devoured Worlds series, The Fractured Dark, opens a few months after the first book, The Blighted Stars, ends. Acaelus Mercator has already run off with most of the remaining supply of relk, the key ingredient in the printable bodies humans use instead of their own biological ones. People are already starving because there isn’t the fuel to get food from the stations where it is grown to where it is needed. I really enjoyed seeing the bigger world the characters navigate as The Blighted Stars was mostly contained to the Seventh Cradle, a dead planet. In this book, we can see how humanity has relied too greatly on a resource they only had a finite supply of without any understanding of the consequences of doing so.

This insight was fascinating as we discover that the birth rate is non-existent, but humanity is still overpopulated because of all the consciousnesses ‘on ice’, stored away in case they are ever needed or their family can afford to have them reborn. We discover how old people are before they are mapped and printed into new bodies, and we hear the urban legends that surround the ones who go to be mapped but never come back. O’Keefe creates a dark universe where the stars do not give humans a fresh start.

We also see more about the phenomenon of cracking, where a mind is printed too many times, has undergone a particularly gruesome death or has been printed in more than one body at a time. It is seen as a fate worse than being left on ice because there is no coming back from cracking. It’s the thing Tarquin fears the most while being the biggest risk to Naira due to her role.

I found this book very stressful because I really cared about the characters. Naira and Tarquin’s blossoming romance was an important thread for me in The Blighted Stars, and in The Fractured Dark, they had more freedom to be with each other. But O’Keefe gave us a range of believable antagonists and obstacles that stopped them from having any relief in each other. Naira and Tarquin are from different social classes, which was a major source of conflict between them, and sometimes it felt like Tarquin couldn’t breathe without Naria pointing out all his unconscious privilege bias and not giving him the due he deserved for the changes he had already made. That small niggle aside, the barriers between them being happy together were realistic and high stakes. Failure meant death, and I didn’t want either of them to die.

Despite the fact that the book ranges over months, it doesn’t feel oddly paced or disjointed, which is a real skill. There was no saggy middle that can happen in second books. From start to finish, The Fractured Dark is a white-knuckle ride and impossible to put down. This is what people mean when they talk about epic space opera. Highly recommended.

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