The Burning Dark
Well, I fell off the blogging truck there for awhile, for a wide variety of reasons including, but not limited to, emergency doorknob repair, elementary school choir concerts, and playing soul music for confused contra dancers. I’m back though, hopefully with a bang and a promise of consistency. This week’s topic is the prequel to Adam Christopher’s newest novel, generously provided to me by the marketing team there. Thanks, Tor!
I must admit to going into The Burning Dark willfully misled. I got through the first sentences of the dust jacket blurb, the ones wherein a guy named after my home state engages in space battles with mechanical arachnids, and dove right in. I totally missed the bits about haunted space stations and the like. Whoops! I was in for a big surprise, starting from Chapter Two, since Burning Dark is more like The Haunting of Hill House crossed with Solaris, if David Drake were writing. It was probably another fifty pages before I recovered from that shock and really dug into things; that is nothing I will hold against the author.
Many years ago, one or another teacher pushed us all through the aforementioned Hill House. I remember ending up frustrated with the book, since SFF-inclined me wanted the author to take us through what was obviously a very cool haunted house. Instead, we get a character study of an unreliable, and fairly annoying, protagonist. Fewer ghosts and secret passages, more emo whining. (At least, this is my memory of the book. Apparently it’s famously well thought of.) I was reminded of this for the first 200 pages or so of Burning Dark, as Christopher introduces the protagonists, their angst, and their numerous travails, rather than mapping out the creepy space station and weirdo star it orbits. He does start to deliver more at the end, though it was a bit of a slog at times for me. (Mileage may vary – I am not a ghost story aficionado.)
The action begins with a retelling of a Japanese creation myth that made absolutely no sense at the time. It is a clear sign of my daily post-work exhaustion that I totally failed to connect this to a massively obvious clue that overshadows the rest of the book, until the very last chapter. That or impending senility, but I’m hoping for the former. Anyway, those not up on Japanese mythology may miss it anyway. As the book proper starts, one Idaho Cleveland is blowing the crap out of bad guy spiders from his perch on a space battleship. Good times. Three cheers for anything named Idaho, but worse things are definitely ahead. We know this because everyone knows that God hates Cleveland. (Sports joke, for those not up on athletic woe.) Captain Idaho quickly finds himself reassigned for a final tour, since the most recent battle left him with both medals of honor and a reconstructed knee, and we are introduced to the crazy space station Coast City.
Coast City orbits a star that messes up nearby communications and electronics, is being decommissioned, and is inhabited by the last remnants of crew and military. People have disappeared, lights flicker, the heaters don’t work, giant swaths of the station are either uninhabited, being disassembled, or both, and strange things are afoot. We see these from a few different perspectives as the book moves through standard haunted house dance steps. Most of the characters are marines or starship captains, giving things a veneer of military SF, and there are just enough big words and futuristic tech to tease at Hard SF, but mostly this is a horror story.
As such, most opinions of the book will depend entirely on how people feel about horror. It’s not really my thing, so I didn’t find Burning Dark gripping for long stretches. The end is rousing enough to win me over and the world building is deep enough to warrant further reading; the follow up novel looks to be more in line with conventional SF. I will be checking it out later this year and expect to enjoy it. Burning Dark gets a rec from me for anyone looking for a change of pace, or who is curious about mixing SF and ghost stories. The Analog crowd probably won’t enjoy it, nor anyone wanting space battles and aliens. Beyond that, the reader will have to decide.