The Daedalus Incident by Michael J. Martinez -Advance Review [Shadowhawk]

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Shadowhawk reviews an upcoming debut novel from Night Shade Books.

“In a time of SFF that is often serious and cerebral, The Daedalus Incident takes a step back to focus on the most important reason any reader picks up a book – to read a story that is plain good fun and adventure and that does not get bogged down into complexities of the world. A highly recommended debut.” ~The Founding Fields

Before I get into the review, it would be remiss of me to not mention Night Shade Books’ ongoing troubles. The publisher has had a rough few years with respect to being able to pay its authors, editors, cover artists, etc and it was recently announced that the owners were looking into selling off the company rather than declaring Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The terms of the “sale” have been discussed back and forth by the industry for close to 2 weeks now, and the future for almost all of Night Shade’s authors and other creators is very uncertain. In light of that, I wanted to make a request to all the readers of this site: if there is a Night Shade author you love, then spread the word about their books, whether by word of mouth or otherwise however you deem fit. Every sale is going to help the authors, the editors, the cover artists, etc and it is going to make their transitioning period that much more secure. IIRC, the deal about Night Shade’s IP assets (the books) being sold off to Skyhorse Publishing is supposed to be finalised this coming week, and the fallout of this is going to have a huge impact for everybody involved. You can read more about it here and here. One way or another, it will all be over this week, so show your support for these people, and spread the word.

Now, on to the review itself.

The Daedalus Incident is yet another novel from my “51 Most Anticipated Releases of 2013” list. As I said in that post, I’m a sucker for space opera and Lt. Weatherby’s “magical” arc had a very high appeal for me. The premise of the novel hinted at a merging of SF and fantasy in the story, and going in, that is what I expected to be up front and center. Which, as it turns out, it very much was.

There are two narratives in the novel. The first of these is from the point of view of Lt. Shaila Jain of the Joint Space Command, a pseudo military-police force that provides security for all US/EU space missions. Shaila Jain’s arc is set in our own timeline, that is, her story is in what you can consider to be our own far future when global space programmes are actually viable and productive and mankind has taken to mining on Mars.

The second narrative is from the point of view of Lt. Weatherby, a young officer in His Majesty’s Navy, in a timeline that is as divergent from ours as it could have been: through the powers of occultism and alchemy, the imperial nations have established empires throughout the solar system. Also, there is no such thing as the United States of America anymore, there is the rebellious political entity known as the United States of Ganymede, engaged in direct conflict with England. So the human race has well and truly spread out to the stars, traversing space in alchemically-powered sail-ships and has encountered alien races on Venus and the moons of Saturn. Bloody exciting stuff!

Suffice to say, The Daedalus Incident proves to be a highly engaging novel from the get go, given the uniqueness of Weatherby’s arc, and the interweaving of it with Lt. Jain’s arc.

There are a few things going for Lt. Jain in terms of her character that I found really likable. One, she is not the typical white character I would have expected for a novel such as this – she is an Indian. When was the last time that an Indian space-naut (or an Indian character in general) was in as high-profile a position as her within a science fiction novel? I can’t recall a single one from my experience. Second, she is a …. well, woman, and she drives a lot of the action and intrigue within her story arc. Strong and powerful characters such as her are usually not found in a novel like this in my experience, or what I’ve heard from people over the years. In recent memory, only Captain Prudence from M. C. Planck’s debut novel (from Tor), The Kassa Gambit, comes to mind. Third, she is never sexualised or treated as somehow inferior because of her gender by her male counterparts within the novel. And that speaks to the state of the women in the novel in general, as far as her arc is concerned at least, since Martinez never draws any lines between either gender and he treats all his characters fairly in that respect. Fourth and final, we both share the same last name, so go us!

Lt. Jain is shown as a strong character who is loyal to her ideals, her morals, and has a strong inquisitive streak, and in a character-driven novel like The Daedalus Incident, she is well and truly the star of the story. She takes matters into her own hands, she can match male antagonists one-on-one, and she has a fair bit of a rebel within herself as well. It all adds up by the epilogue. This is the kind of women protagonists I love to and want to read in my speculative fiction, especially in SF. These are the kinds of characters I want to see explored more by authors.

Weatherby’s arc is quite different, and that has more to do than just the nature of his world and his gender. For one, whereas Shaila Jain is investigating the mysterious quakes on Mars and the strange phenomena of rocks rolling uphill inside caves, Weatherby is on a hunt for pirates and rogue alchemists across the solar system, from Earth to Mercury to Ganymede to Saturn and then back to Mars where the big showdown happens. Given that his story is set in 1779, he is a product and sum of a very different breeding than his fellow star protagonist. He is a man who believes in the quaint (as we consider them) ideas of gender – that men are superior to women and that the latter should stick to the womanly pursuits as society dictates.

In addition to the whole mystery about why one of the most powerful rogue alchemists in the solar system is hopping from planet to planet in search of the core alchemical essence of each planet, the novel is about him being challenged by the gender stereotypes of his society. Anne Baker, formerly the housekeeper to the (now dead) prominent Mercurian alchemist Roger McDonnell, is the vehicle through which Martinez challenges Weatherby’s notions about women and their place in society. Anne Baker is not as prominent a character as Shaila Jain, but the two of them nevertheless compliment each other in opening up Weatherby to a whole new world of possibilities. The romance between Weatherby and Anne Baker is perhaps a little cliched and ham-fisted, but it is also enjoyable in the sense that it is him who has to convince her of his love, rather than the other way around. He has to work hard at being… worthy of her attention in that respect. All in all, it is a nice little subplot.

In a way, both Shaila Jain and Thomas Weatherby have to unlearn some of the things they take for granted within their respective settings. Where for Weatherby the unlearning is with respect to his views on gender politics, for Jain it is about what is and isn’t possible with astrophysical science.

Time travel? Interdimensional concurrent events? The Daedalus Incident has it all. Throughout the novel, there is a very strong sense of mystery and intrigue and high adventure, whether it takes place in the void space or on Mars. There is a ton of action too since what would be a novel about sail-ships and pirates in space without at least one battle between them? Martinez’s action scenes have a strong punch, and they are all well executed in terms of their ebb and flow. You can almost imagine them playing out in front of your eyes, given the level of detail that has been put in them.

Even overall, the two linked narratives move along quite safely. The story never gets bogged down with intricate details and info-dumps. Martinez keeps the action and story rolling without pause, and he ends the book on a great high, with the mention of one of the most important characters in history. Even along the way, there are several mentions of and special appearances by other such notable historical figures. They add a good amount of historical relevance to the novel, and make Weatherby’s arc that much more exciting since without these people in the picture, the setting would not feel the same.

I haven’t touched on the world-building yet, aside from a few mentions here and there. Thing is, what Martinez has done here isn’t so easy to capture in a review. The imagery is something that speaks itself because of how it is all structured. Imagine a sea-worthy ship sailing from Venus to Mars along the solar currents with all its sails unfurled. Now imagine that this is a naval warship in pursuit of a pirate. Now imagine that there are tribes of short-heighted barbarians native to Venus who have been massacred by the pirates. Now imagine that there is a powerful race of aliens on Saturn and its moons who have barred their realms from all human intervention. Imagine that alchemists are able to delve deep into astrophysics and cosmology and can, in effect, perform magic.

While reading the novel, I remarked to Michael that the novel reminded me of the Disney animated movie Treasure Island which was set in space (instead of its “traditional” setting as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s original) and shared similarities with Weatherby’s arc. He told me that the movie was indeed one of his inspirations behind that particular story. Truly fantastical stuff since Michael has captured that same sense of wonder and awe of the movie into The Daedalus Incident.

Hats off!

Rating: 8.5/10

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.

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  • http://twitter.com/PrinceJvstin Paul Weimer

    I thought I was the only one who remembered Treasure Planet!

  • arzvi

    “When was the last time that an Indian space-naut (or an Indian character in general) was in as high-profile a position as her within a science fiction novel? ” Avasarala in Caliban’s war – the character was much rounded and influential as Ms. Jain here.