Here we have another of Orbit Publishing’s summer debuts, which they graciously sent me in exchange for an unbiased review. A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe, by Alex White, is the first book in his Salvagers series. I will tell you right off the bat that I think this is going to be one of the most divisive books I have read and a lot of people are going to love it and a lot of people are going to feel its not their thing. Which side you fall on is what I will hope to show you with this review. However, if I had to describe this book in an elevator pitch, I would say it is Firefly, meets Fast and Furious, meets National Treasure.
Building off that last sentence, Big Ship is a story about an unlikely and eclectic crew, with a penchant for danger and huge ridiculous vehicle stunts, on the hunt for historical treasures. Our protagonists are Boots and Nilah, two complicated women from very different backgrounds who are thrown together by circumstance. Boots is a war veteran from a conflict that had no winner and a scam artist with no scruples. She survived a war that wiped out both sides and now scrapes by selling fake salvage/treasure maps to suckers who come to her. She also has a rare birth defect, she was born with no magic. On the other hand, Nilah is a magic prodigy with a need for speed. Pampered and privileged as the daughter of the elite, Nilah is a race ship driver, spending her time using her mechanical magic to drive a futuristic race car. She is egotistical and spoiled, but none can deny her brilliance with her magic as she’s consistently at the top of the pack when it comes to speed and finesse on the track. The two of them end up on the run when Boots accidentally sells a map that unearths a conspiracy and Nilah witnesses (and is accused of) a murder that was meant to cover it back up. The two of them end up on the ship of Boots’ old commanding officer, someone she detests for his actions in the aforementioned war, and they all quickly realize that the only way they are going to get out of this is to follow Boots’ map to its final mark.
Big Ship is a fun, loud, and adventurous book. As you can likely tell from the plot description the story has treasure hunting, racing, lots of combat, and unlikely heroes. It is a tale of space rogues that will appeal on the surface to most with its kick ass magic system that I have only mentioned so far. Big Ship is closer to a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid as the populace of White’s world are all born with specialized magic (called “marks”) that allow them to enhance their tech, or use tech to enhance their magic. For example, Nilah has a mechanist’s mark that allows her to “feel” her vehicles as if they were part of her body and adjust them as if she was an AI. The captain of the ship they all ride on has a mark that allows him to produce shields, and using the ships interface he can project magical auras around it. It’s a really cool and fun magic system that constantly surprised and delighted me. The book is original, fun, and exciting, so you might be wondering why I mentioned it will likely be divisive. Well there are two major reasons, neither of them a flaw, but things that might not align with everyone’s tastes.
The first reason is that Boots and Nilah are incredibly unlikable (or at least at first). The book has a tremendous amount of character development, but the first chapters surrounding our leads had me wanting to blast them out an airlock. Boots is selfish and self-pitying and hard to feel sympathetic for as she rips off everyone around her. Nilah is arrogant and naive and watching her take her first steps in the “real world” was painful. I grew to love both of them as they became much better people over the course of the book, but if you do not have the patience for the character growth it may be a major turn off. The second reason is that the book is incredibly dramatic. I’m talking borderline soap opera dramatic. Everyone is constantly fighting, everyone is constantly talking about their feelings, and everyone is always pouring their heart and soul out to anyone who will listen. I did not enjoy this, but I want to stress that despite my dislike I still think that it was well-written and well-executed. The prose style was just not my preference and it had me rolling my eyes in many scenes. That being said, I was easily able to move past the moments I didn’t enjoy due to the gripping plot and the books biggest strength: the spectacle and combat.
Combat is really hard to write, and White is really good at it. I think this book would make an excellent movie because White’s action scenes were so visceral and present in my mind that I felt I was living them. His attention to detail with sound effects in particular really got my adrenaline pumping, with things like the noises of retractable claws and the whining stress on ship parts bringing scenes to life. This combined with some huge Fast and Furious style action set pieces led to some very memorable scenes that are still vivid in my mind after finishing the book.
While A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe might lose some people with its dramatic emotions and less than perfect protagonists, those that push on are going to find a new favorite book. The world is incredible, the adventure engrossing, and the combat will have you on the edge of your seat. Big Ship is the strongest debut I have read in 2018 so far and I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel as soon as I can.
Rating: A Big Ship At The Edge Of The Universe – 8.5/10