Rating: 8.4 (out of 10)
One of the first things I noticed about S.K. Dunstall’s Stars Uncharted is that all the good guys are liars. Josune Arriola joins the crew of the Road to the Goberlings under false pretenses; she is really part of the crew of the Hassim, and her captain desperately want to meet with the Road’s captain, Hammond Roystan. Josune is really there to report on the Road’s position in order to facilitate a rendezvous. The two ships do meet, though the Hassim is found drifting, its crew murdered by mercenaries for the Eaglehawk company. Roystan uncovers Josune’s ruse but keeps it from the rest of his crew. He has plenty to hide himself, including the reason the Hassim wanted to meet with him in the first place. Adding to the wheel of deceptions is the famous, highly sought body modder Nika Rik Terri, who changes her identity to escape her dangerously controlling ex-boyfriend Alejandro, an Eaglehawk exec. But her plans are disrupted when an assassin forces her to switch bodies with him, so he can use hers to commit a murder. Her situation now desperate, Nika holes up as a passenger on the Road under her assumed identity when Roystan and Josune come seeking her help.
By contrast, the villains don’t have to do much lying. The big companies fund the court system, meaning the Department of Justice is simply an arm for enforcing whatever laws benefit the companies and for ignoring those they wish to violate. The Dunstall sisters (the S and K stand for Sherylyn and Karen) have constructed a libertarian paradise for humanity’s future, which means it’s basically a nightmare dystopia for everyone who isn’t rich and powerful. Freelancers like the crews of the Road and the Hassim operate without any real legal protection and can be eliminated (or conscripted into a kind of slavery, which is in many ways worse) without repercussion if they become an inconvenience to any of the companies. Laborers have no recourse and are exploited mercilessly. Little wonder our heroes are primed to deceive – hoarding secrets is one of the few avenues for survival they have.
The novel is built around a MacGuffin: transurides are the most valuable metal in the known galaxy, not found on earth and unable to be duplicated artificially. Dellarine is the most valuable of transurides because it is used in high-end communications tech and enables extreme body modding. Before he died, a prospector named Goberling found an enormous lode of transurides, but never shared its location with anyone – finding Goberling’s lode is the holy grail of prospecting. For an independent prospector, the lode could make them rich enough to keep the company off their back for good. For the companies, it means having a near monopoly on the transurides supply.
The Hassim had been searching for Goberling’s lode a long time, and its captain believed that Roystan held some piece of the puzzle regarding the location of Goberling’s lode. Once Roystan and the Road to the Goberlings in on the company radar, our heroes are swept up in a relentless battle for survival. It would not do this novel justice to say it is full of non-stop action, because the action is far more inventive than the usual space battles, gunfights and explosions one associates with the term. Dunstall’s ingenuity in creating insurmountable obstacles for the crew to slip past is breathtaking. My favorite is a long, suspenseful sequence in which they must escape captivity on a heavily populated space station without killing anyone – a welcome reversal of the typical space opera’s tendency to rack up a massive body count while dodging accountability. The authors also manage to balance the unrelenting turmoil with absorbing character arcs for its three principal actors, letting them grow naturally more comfortable and trusting in each other’s presence. The details of the worldbuilding are remarkable as well, from the sounds and smells, the architecture, the lifestyles and cultures of its inhabitants – this world lives and breathes its history, rather than just explicating it.
For a good portion of the novel, the search for Goberling’s lode takes a back seat to the protagonists’ quest to just keep breathing, and this may be off-putting to some readers who read primarily for the plot. For me, a story lives and dies by my investment in its characters, and that is where Stars Uncharted hits the sweet spot. This is, I imagine, just the beginning of our excursion into this world, so there will be plenty of time to spend, and I hope plenty of trouble to get in and out of, on their path ahead.