Between my gay men’s book group and this blog, I’ve been reading a lot of “alternative structure” books. Just the luck of the draw. Some were good, some not. But after four or five, I started longing for a fully plotted story with characters who interacted with each other instead of the furniture. I was excited, then, to start Stephen Graham King’s A Congress of Ships. Full disclosure: I edited the first two books of this series and was unable to review them, so I’m well acquainted with King and The Maverick Heart Cycle. This one, however, is fair game. And it’s an exciting, interesting read that stretches King’s universe both literally and metaphorically.
Sentient spaceship Maverick Heart, or Vrick, as his human occupants, Keene, Ember, and Lexa-Blue call him, is one of several self-aware craft haunting the Galactacum. One of the others finds a rend in the fabric of space and as the rest of them gather to study it, a colony ship from another dimension falls through–pursued by the aliens who destroyed their galaxy. Vrick and his crew, aided by his fellow ships and some folk from the other two books, must figure out a way to seal the rift and deal with both sets of intruders.
One of the key components of world-building is knowing when to stop piling on the bricks, and King is superb at giving you just enough to understand why something’s happening or a character is performing an action and stopping. He never goes for the esoteric factoid or sneaks in something that doesn’t belong, and his writing is all the clearer for it. And when backstory is necessary, he never overworks it or drags it out into filler. He drops in what needs to be there and moves on.
The characters who populate this world are also top-notch. Since this is space opera, there’s a lot of buddy banter between the humans and Vrick, and it’s all delightfully done, but it’s all the more serviceable due to the deep feelings the characters have for each other. Keene and Lexa-Blue were together in the first book, joined by Keene’s new lover Ember in the second. The politician Daevin is also along for the ride, having had “history” as it were with Keene as well. And the characters, both major and minor, are representative of many spots along the genderqueer spectrum.
But when the chips are down, they perform admirably in the action scenes. And King shines here, too. His battle scenes are breathless, and he knows just when to up the ante and when to back off. The climactic chases and narrow escapes abound, but they’re all believable and perfectly plotted. King’s writing is elastic, with honed short sentences and terse dialogue for the battle sequences and some lovely languid descriptions of both alien vessels during downtime.
A Congress of Ships is a worthy entry in The Maverick Heart Cycle. Even though each book works quite well as a standalone, you might as well just order all three of them at the same time. I’ll guarantee you’ll enjoy the other two just as much as this one. Long may the cycle continue!
© 2019 Jerry L. Wheeler