‘Artifact Space’ is an action packed space opera with a multitude of subplots. The author’s debut science fiction novel, it has a confidence and scope that make it feel like it belongs to a master of the genre. With the constant action and sheer number of characters and threads, it can feel very confusing, and there are times when the flow is lost entirely due to the novel’s breakneck pace, but overall it’s an enjoyable addition to the space adventure genre.
Marca Nbaro has always dreamed of escaping the orphanage she grew up in and venturing into space – but thanks to her whistleblowing and a minor scandal, she’s barred from serving. Undeterred, she pools her entire life savings into simulators, hackers, and forgeries, bluffing her way into a position as a Midder on the Greatship Athens. However, leaving behind her old life isn’t so easy – and between the ever-present threat of blackmail, acting like she has a clue what she’s doing, navigating the microcosm and culture of Greatship life, and an unexpected threat to the Athens, Marca starts to realise she might have traded her dangerous life for one even more perilous. As the Athens sets off on a two-year round trip to make humanity’s most important trade – obtaining xenoglas from the only other sentient alien species they’ve ever made contact with – Marca is trapped to deal with whatever the universe decides to throw at her next.
Marca Nbaro makes a brilliant protagonist. Unusually for a novel of this length, she’s the single point-of-view character, but her perspective is an engaging one. With a horrible, traumatic background, she definitely has elements of PTSD – but she also has incredible grit and determination and a tendency to react to danger by throwing herself headlong into it. She trusts no-one, reacting warily to simple things like touch, and her lack of willingness to ever admit to weakness constantly gets her into trouble – but she’s intelligent and gutsy and easy to root for. It’s also wonderful seeing how, as the novel goes on, she starts to come out of her shell – never fully, but a huge step from where she starts. Her growing friendship with her roommate, Thea, is lovely, as is the way her respect of her colleagues starts to resemble friendship too. There’s a romance, but it’s very slow and subtle – in keeping with Marca’s triggers and defensiveness – and feels beautifully organic.
The side characters are numerous – so numerous it takes a significant amount of time to figure out who everyone is, and sometimes names are thrown in and it’s a challenge to remember who they are – but there are some real gems. Mpono is one of the highlights – an androgyne, which appears to be a third gender marker somewhat equivalent to the non-binary spectrum, Mpono is confident, talented, and takes absolutely no nonsense. They’re tough, but as Marca starts to get to know them, it also becomes clear that they also have a wicked sense of humour and really care about their friends.
The plot is constantly moving, never given a moment of rest. The overarching plot revolves around a threat to the Greatships of mysterious origin, but there are numerous subplots – Marca’s lies to get on the ship in the first place, the politics of life on the Athens, and a secret to do with the aliens they’re travelling to meet. The subplots are less woven in and more thrown into a soup, with events constantly occurring that may or may not affect the overall story. This makes the story chaotic, but somehow works – everything becomes quite unpredictable, and whilst it can be hard to keep track of everything there’s still a compulsive readability to the story.
The world-building happens organically throughout. The reader is thrown in the deep end, picking up tidbits as they go along – sometimes from Marca learning about them, and sometimes inferring from context. It’s a novel that best suits a reader familiar with the science fiction genre, as many of the basics are genre staples that would be harder for a new reader to infer. It’s essentially set in a version of the future where Earth, or Old Terra, has been mostly destroyed, but humanity has instead expanded throughout the universe thanks to technological advancement and a form of faster-than-light travel known as Insertion. There are several different factions, each based on Earth’s geography – an African faction, a US faction, a Chinese faction – each of which has home planets and their own space force for war and trade. The factions are allied, but not entirely – the friction between them is a major subplot. The use of familiar names works well, and it’s nice to read a space opera that doesn’t assume the entire Earth allied as one organisation when it conquered space.
Overall, ‘Artifact Space’ is an exceptionally fast-paced and creative novel, highly readable with an excellent cast of characters. Its scope is huge, and the sheer amount happening is regularly confusing, but despite this its easy to enjoy. Recommended for fans of space adventures and novels with non-stop action.
Thanks to NetGalley and Gollancz for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Gollancz
Paperback: 24th June 2021