Genre: Space Western
Publication Date: 01/06/2021
Ten Low is in hiding, scrounging a living as a medic on Factus, a world at the edge of the universe. But then the universe comes to her, falling from the sky in the form of a child claiming to be a General . . .
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this book. It’s a work that merrily mashes genres together like there’s no tomorrow, taking its influences from so many places it creates something wholly new. There’s a feeling of a larger space opera beyond the narrow vision we get in this one book, while much of the plot has all the trappings of military SF. Ultimately though, Ten Low is as worthy a bearer of the Space Western label as anything this side of Firefly.
Factus is a pretty bleak place. A world of sand and dust where people farm snakes for food and leather, and drink rat’s milk as a treat. For much of the book, the science fiction elements could easily be stripped away to leave a straight western in their place. We’ve got ranches, rough days on the trail, bandits in the hills, and saloons in every remote outpost. Those settlements with names like At Least and Redcrop truly evoke a frontier spirit. In fact, had it not been for the science fiction elements, I may have enjoyed the book more than I did.
You see, the big science fiction concept that Holborn brings to Ten Low are the Ifs. Locals call them demons, and they (always referred to simply as they) are always watching. They may have some ability to show you alternate universe. Or maybe they don’t exist, and are the product of collective superstition. We don’t get to find out anything concrete about them, and that just bugs me. I assume from the ending of the book that there is a planned sequel that may deal with them further, but given their importance to this book, I would have appreciated some elaboration. Beyond this frustration, the scenes in which they show other potential outcomes are confusing in the extreme, making you doubt what you’re reading. All in all, both concept and execution skew more towards mysticism than I like in my science fiction.
The overall structure of Ten Low is rather experimental. No chapters, but divided into four books within the physical one. It’s a clever trick to make you read further in the hopes of a natural stopping point, and makes the pages fly by. Holborn also inserts newspaper clippings into the text at choice moments, and this works really well. Though I was confused at times, the writing is strong throughout, and distinctive too. For a book with a plot that is essentially walking from point A to point B, it’s also very well paced. There are lots of encounters along the road, but none of them feel like throwaway moments. Even the smallest of scenes feels as important as the biggest.
Vague worldbuilding and mysticism bring down the rating slightly, but Ten Low is undeniably an interesting book. I recommend you read it and make your own judgement.