Rating: 8.2 (out of 10)
There is a distinctive sensation I get from visiting Tanegawa’s World, the planet where Alex Wells’ Hob Ravani novels are set – like walking against the wind, sand grinding between my teeth. It’s a pitiless, unrelenting tableau of salt and grit and thirst, and, like the best planets, its inhabitants are at the mercy of its disposition. It shapes your body, colonizes your mind. So much of the conflict in Blood Binds the Pack (and its predecessor, Hunger Makes the Wolf) is generated by need to control or be consumed by what radiates through the rock and soil of Tanegawa’s World and the power it possesses to capacitate or to corrupt, that the novel ends up being much more than the raucous sci-fi western it advertises itself to be. It’s the kind of worldbuilding that earns its own subgenre classification – geopunk, maybe? (I know the “punk” suffix gets overused a lot in delineating genre fiction, but if ever a series deserved to be punkified, I think “space witch mercenary biker gang” is it.)
I went into Blood Binds the Pack a little tentatively; sequels are tricky buggers that often try to side-step the anxiety principle by aiming to please rather than supersede. Thankfully, Wells doesn’t recoil in the face of expectation – they seem more inclined to give it the finger. Blood Binds the Pack does not follow Hunger Makes the Wolf so much as challenge it to a wrestling match and show up with a game plan for victory. Yes, there is more action, higher stakes, a faster pace – but more than that, Wells levels up their skills across the board. Character moments are deeper and fleshier, and the culture and lifestyle of the miners on Tanegawa’s World is more deftly explored. Themes that matter to Wells, particularly labor rights, are emphasized with greater breadth and clarity.
Blood Binds the Pack picks up not long after the end of Hunger Makes the Wolf. Despite suffering setbacks at the hands of Hob Ravani’s Ghost Wolves, the TransRift corporation made further strides to consolidate their hold over the Interstellar government and erode citizen rights, using as leverage their monopoly over the Weathermen, inhumanly powered beings that make faster than light travel possible. Now that TransRift has discovered the source of the Weathermen’s power – the mineral amritite – they hatch a scheme to turn the miners on Tanegawa’s World into little more than indentured slaves to obtain it.
Hob is still the central figure in Blood Binds the Pack, but her adopted sister Mag (who spent much of Hunger Make the Wolf as a prisoner of TransRift) has a larger and more proactive roll. While Hob and the Ghost Wolves look to swipe the source of TransRift’s power out from under them, it’s up to Mag to organize the various mining towns into a unified front against TransRift’s brutal disregard for their rights and safety. This storyline forms the moral centerpiece of the novel – essentially, the reason the Ghost Wolves have been transformed from a muscle for hire outfit to an activist militia. That’s why it’s a little disappointing that Mag should bear the most morally questionable choice in the novel, one involving a TransRift collaborator: a choice that still doesn’t sit right with me and a problem that I feel Wells fails to adequately address.
For better or worse, though, Tanegawa’s World isn’t the kind of place where you spend a lot of time and energy second guessing yourself. It’s a place where you take action or suffer the consequences. It’s a world that somehow ended up with the heroes it deserves, as if something deep in its core pushed them into coughing up what it needed from them. Blood Binds the Pack is framed, ingeniously, around a countdown to the day when its final conflict comes to a head. Full-blown rapture is pretty much the only road this story could have travelled down, and Wells, who writes like they’ve never met a bear they didn’t want to poke, has their hands firmly on the wheel.