A refreshingly original sci-fi/historical fantasy mash-up, with an incredible premise. The Daedalus Incident combines sci-fi set on Mars in the 22nd century with historical fantasy set in the 18th century of an alternative reality.
The story contains two major threads. The sci-fi thread, as I thought of it, featured Lieutenant Shaila Jain, a member of the Royal British Navy (and the JSC which I took to be some joint cooperative between the UK and USA) posted on Mars as part of a small military operation supervising a mining operation. When they begin experiencing earthquakes where there should be none, she discovers a subterranean cave in which a wall is building itself and a journal that is writing itself.
The historical fantasy features Lieutenant Thomas Weatherby, a member of the Royal British Navy in the 18th century onboard the HMS Daedalus as it sails through space between planets. I was initially confused by this, but quickly decided this wasn’t our past, but had to be the past in an alternate reality, one where alchemy really can turn lead into gold and allow ships to sail through space on the solar winds. Of course, in our reality, the solar wind is something that would tear apart an 18th century frigate, but placing us in an alternate reality allowed me to suspend belief and accept that this might be possible in a world with working alchemy.
The journal Lt. Jain has found is, of course, that of Lt Weatherby and she and her team watch in disbelief as words literally appear on the paper, describing what to them seems a work of fiction. Only when they run out of other possible explanations do they begin to think this might be real.
Lt. Weatherby, in his world, is on the trail of an evil alchemist, Cagliostro, who is in the process of collecting the various alchemical essences of the solar system so that he might perform some great alchemical working to achieve his nefarious purposes. It is unclear what his intentions are to start, but it was at least apparent to me that whatever he was doing was what was causing the blurring between universes.
The story threads and the universes do eventually merge so that Lts. Jain and Weatherby meet each other, but I won’t say more than that so I don’t ruin the ending.
Apart from the spectacular story, the thing that struck me most was the ‘voice’ of Lts. Jain and Weatherby. You could open this story anywhere and know immediately which thread you were in by the ‘sound’ of the narrator. It was so incredibly distinctive I think I’ve even learned something from it.
That said, having established these distinct voices, it frustrated me that later the story fell more into an omniscient style POV. I didn’t find this as obvious as the beginning of the book, where we seemed well-entrenched in either the head of Weatherby or Jain, and the first time I found myself in the perspective of Dr Finch, alchemist to the Daedalus, I was badly jarred, and even more so when we switched back to Weatherby when Finch wandered away. This same issue then began to crop up in the other story thread, and became even more jarring when the threads merged, as I could find myself in the thoughts of either Jain or Weatherby without warning, and my brain evidently wanted to settle into one or the other unless very clearly signalled to switch.
While I am not a fan of omniscient, I usually find it distances me more than jars me, where in this case I found it particularly disorienting, perhaps because often I did feel I was inside the character’s head. I think this was largely because of the distinctive ‘voices’ of the two main characters, so the sudden switch between characters was about as pleasant as a bucket of cold water. Additionally, each Weatherby segment opened with his journal entry, written in the first person, so there was a tendency to want to stay with Weatherby and inside his head. While the genre mash-up was effective, I found this ‘POV mash-up’ less desirable.
I enjoyed the characters, particular Weatherby who had a very strong sense of ‘British stiff upper lip’. The story had a romance sub-plot, with French planetologist Stephane as Jain’s love interest, and budding alchemist Anne Baker as Weatherby’s. Stephane’s character was the more compelling of the two for me, funny, flirtatious but sincere, and I wanted Lt. Jain to be happy with.
By contrast, Anne Baker fell flat. She seemed a woman out of her time, and while Weatherby chided Jain for her behaviour being unseemly for a woman, Anne seemed accepted even though she behaved almost completely contrary to the expectations of a woman in her time, and this felt odd to me. Her backstory never rang true to me, either, or the romantic conflict with Weatherby – I don’t feel the significance of her past was explore deeply enough. But mostly, I just didn’t find her likeable, and so didn’t particularly want the romance to blossom.
The story introduced some fun twists with Benjamin Franklin featuring as an alchemist, and the Count de Germain as the pre-eminent alchemist of his era and discoverer of the Philosopher’s Stone. The United States of America didn’t exist, with the British colony in rebellion instead being the United States of Ganymede located on a moon of Jupiter! Napolean Bonaparte also scored a reference.
A few other minor gripes – the mighty aliens of Xan didn’t feel three-dimensional to me, and I can’t really say why. There just seems to be something missing from the puzzle of who the Xan are and their part in the conflict. Perhaps there are secrets still to be revealed, I don’t know, just something about this felt rushed or skimmed over. Also the tendency to experiment with dialogue tags was distracting sometimes, where a plain ‘said’ would have served better.
Despite that, this is still a superb story, and with it left open for a sequel, I will certainly be looking it up if the author ever writes one.
Ciara is a writer of high fantasy. A fantasy lover from her early years, this loyal, passionate, quirky, strong-willed, confident woman is bent on world domination and already has a couple of minions in the making. Born argumentative and recognising the long road to make money out of writing, Ciara wisely invested her natural inclinations in a career in law. Her favourite authors include Terry Goodkind, Terry Pratchett, Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan and Brent Weeks. She is the official dragon expert of #stabbylove.
More information about Ciara Ballintyne can be found on www.ciaraballintyne.com