I’ve long been a lover of Space Opera, but it was so rarely a place I saw myself represented that I drifted away from it over my years as a reader. I always felt a disconnect: how come we got to the stars, but there’s never a queer person in sight? Why can’t the cocky space pilot be bi? Why can’t the tech-smart engineer hook up with another guy?
Well, they can. Allow me to introduce you to the Maverick Heart Cycle.
When I first read Stephen Graham King’s Soul’s Blood, I fell in love with his trio of Lexa-Blue, Keene, and the sentient space ship, Maverick Heart (Vrick to the ship’s friends). Space Opera is difficult to pull off well. Balancing world-building, which so often includes linguistic nuances to show an evolution (or devolution) in culture, alongside the narrative itself is a tricky act.
In the first book of the Maverick Heart Cycle, Soul’s Blood, gender-neutral honorifics, sentient (and also agender) space ships, and a galaxy full of colonized planets were all juggled with ease. It took me no time to be hip-deep in the high-tension danger of a culture clash between a technologically-centred city and a nearby colony of more eco-centric and meditative genetically modified individuals with various telepathic and psychokinetic abilities. That our three heroes were an unlikely group to face off against a planet-wide potential war made it all the better. Keene, handsome gay technician with his sharp mind a potential romantic liaison on-planet; Lexa-Blue, a bisexual kick-ass pilot and gunner who I wish had her own television series; and Vrick, the sentient (and oft sarcastic) artificial intelligence ship that gets them to and from danger worked together, bent and broke rules, risked everything (and sometimes everyone) and came out on top, more or less.
When Gatecrasher came out? I had my ticket in hand.
The trio I’d come to love adventuring with get a few new additions in Gatecrasher, and they’re welcome recruits. We meet Ember, a con-man and thief, and his accomplice, Malika, who wears attitudes, personalities, and outfits with equal ease, as they pull off a high-tech robbery that drips with Space Opera technology and once again shows off King’s flair at worldbuilding so casually you’d barely notice it’s happening. This is a real gift of King’s prose: within a few words, you’ve got a picture of a whole world, an entire subcategory of technology, or some new facet of his universe. It never feels like an info dump. And when you’re dealing with a book about space gates, code thieves, virtual assassins, and mono-filament grapples, this gift gets a lot of use.
Much like Soul’s Blood, Gatecrasher introduces us to a new corner of the galaxy, raises the stakes, and then puts the group on a ticking clock to avert major disaster and death. The stakes feel all the more personal this time, which surprised me: I quickly found myself rooting for the new characters as they were introduced, and I had zero notion of who might make it to the end of the book. There were definitely going to be deaths but I didn’t want anyone to die. Similarly, there were a couple of twists to the narrative I didn’t see coming, and I love that feeling of genuine surprise that, on reflection, had clues enough not to make it feel like it came from nowhere, but instead had me grinning at the cleverness.
Now, where Soul’s Blood felt in many ways like Keene’s book (it was his romantic entanglement that got them involved in the narrative), Gatecrasher felt more like Vrick’s book, and this was a surprisingly welcome thing. In Soul’s Blood, Vrick came across as a fun, almost sidekick of a character, an AI who was surprisingly just “one of the guys” on their adventure, but in Gatecrasher, Vrick’s characterization evolves into being much clearer about just what it meant to be a non-human artificially intelligent construct.
Vrick is not human, and this shines through so much clearer in this book. His views on privacy, for example, are chuckle-worthy, and his processes of justification for what amounts to some pretty deep infiltration into private information comes across so perfectly this time. Vrick is easily bored, is a bit light on ethical consideration, and has the ability to go and look pretty much anywhere. This curiosity gets the crew in over their heads when they discover something hidden more-or-less in the middle of nowhere space, and they decide to go look.
Also, I can’t help it, every time Vrick refers to the human crew as “Meat” I chuckle like a twelve year-old boy.
Can you read Gatecrasher as a stand alone? Well, I’m a purist, and I’ll always suggest people start at the beginning, but this second book in the Maverick Heart Cycle does pull off a self-contained narrative. Yes, of course, events from Soul’s Blood are mentioned, but not to the level of a major spoiler. Were a reader to pick up Gatecrasher first, I don’t think they’d lose much in the way of the experience.
But get them both. Trust me. Queer space opera rarely comes with the whole deal. A blooming poly romance? Bi representation? Gender and race explored in a future society handled with real skill and attention? Stephen Graham King brings it all and it’s very welcome, from the opening scenes to nail-biting conclusion.
King is at work on more. I’m glad. I want to explore more of his galaxy with his awesome queer crew.
Reviewed by ‘Nathan Burgoine
© 2017, ‘Nathan Burgoine