BOOK REVIEW: A Chain Across the Dawn, by Drew Williams

-Spoilers for The Stars Now Unclaimed

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Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Series: The Universe After (#2)

Genre: Space Opera

Pages: 308

Publication Date: 08/08/2019

Verdict: 5/5

Three years after joining the ranks of the Justified, Esa assists her mentor Jane in tracking down children with unique gifts. But they are not the only ones searching, and their competition may not have the best interests of the Galaxy at heart . . .

Continuing my efforts to catch up with books I should have read much sooner, the sequel to Drew Williams’ The Stars Now Unclaimed is a wonderful piece of modern space opera. Set in a Galaxy ravaged by an energy wave that destroys most technology, we return to the world of the Justified, a group trying to rebuild in this post-apocalyptic space age.

This time around our narrator is Esa, the young protegé of Jane Kamali. Less sure of herself than her mentor, and far, far swearier, Esa’s narration is compelling and vivid, her voice uniquely distinct in a genre that so often favours a more omniscient approach. As well as being good with a gun, Esa is gifted with telekinetic abilities. Now, as some readers will be aware, I’m not overly keen on psychic powers of space magic in my SF. But Williams pulls it off effortlessly. Esa’s telekinetic abilities are useful, but not so powerful as to be boring. In fact, the exact nature and strength of those abilities is one of the most interesting sides to the story. Each of the gifted children we encounter has a unique ability, like all the best superhero ensembles. In fact, the overall approach is more like superheroics than psychic powers. Something that Esa herself remarks on.

As with all good sequels, A Chain Across the Dawn deepens the universe. Asking a lot of questions and answering some of them. In particular, Williams starts peeling back the layers of his universe’s history. There are a lot of aliens here, in numerous forms. From humanoid, tentacular, canine and energy-based. Couple that with the more mystical features, and you have as close to Star Wars as you’re likely to find in modern SF. And I don’t mean that as a slight, because what The Universe After series has in common the most is an unashamed sense of fun.

Fun is often overlooked in SF, particularly in these days of dystopias and grim re-imaginings. What sets Williams’s work apart from the rest is the relish he takes in his own creation. There are jokes, quips and humour in abundance, but never at the expense of the story. There is darkness here too, be it a war-torn world or an asteroid inhabited by a cult who believe the entire universe to be a form of purgatory for the dead. It’s a hard line to walk, and one more common on-screen than on the page. This is on of those rare books that is an absolute joy to read, cover to cover. The sort you want to devour in a single sitting, but hold back because you know you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

The final instalment in the trilogy is out next month. This time, I’m not going to wait so long before reading it. If you enjoy your SF to be filled with fun adventures and likable characters, neither should you.

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