Sometimes here at Shiny Book Review, we’re fortunate enough to be able to review stories that the mainstream science fiction community may not have noticed. Such is the case with this week’s “2-for-1 special” featuring writer Grant Hallman’s novella UPFALL and novel IRONSTAR. They are both set in the same universe, but many years separate the two stories.
The first, UPFALL, is set in the not-so-distant future. While Europe appears to be a bit more unified than they are at present, and the space program as a whole seems far better developed as well, we’re essentially dealing with a world we know.
The essential plotline of UPFALL is this — what would you do if the space elevator you were going up suddenly became untethered? Especially if you’d just met the woman of your dreams?
That’s the situation Matthew “Matt” Dunning finds himself in. He’s works for Skyhook Unlimited, and is escorting a science client to Topside Station, while the woman he meets, Ginny Piersall, is there to do a failure analysis study. And of course, the Skyhook space elevator should not have anything go wrong, being based on “next-generation nanowire” . . . but of course, it does.
There’s only a certain amount of air available on the Skyhook, too, while the G-forces are causing many previously unforeseen problems, and there’s no help coming from the surface of the Earth because this was completely unanticipated. (Not to mention that most forms of two-way communication are cut off for completely understandable reasons.)
So it’s up to Matt, Ginny, and the other scientists on the Skyhook (or already in space) to try to figure this whole mess out. Will they be able to do it, or won’t they?
While the drama at UPFALL‘s heart is both believable and compelling, it’s the sweet romance between two smart people — Matt Dunning and Ginny Piersall — that is completely captivating. He’s a clueless nerd of a certain age, and she’s a beautiful, brainy woman who’s mostly met a bunch of men who aren’t up to her intellectual weight . . . so as you might expect, many sparks fly between them while they try to figure out just how to keep everyone on the Skyhook from dying needlessly.
As I’m a sucker for sweet romances, especially between two smart people who must solve an incredibly challenging problem by pooling their resources, I enjoyed UPFALL very, very much.
Approximately 200 years later, the events of IRONSTAR take place. Lieutenant Kirrah Roehl of the Regnum Security Service is the navigator of the Arvida-Yee, a very small survey ship. She enjoys her job, especially when she and her shipmates discover “hablets” (that is, habitable worlds suitable for colonization). And she enjoys being part of such a small crew because it’s like a family.
However, when the Arvida-Yee discovers a habitable planet they weren’t expecting, they encounter hostile fire from aliens called the Kruss — who are traders, but who definitely aren’t kindly and don’t have thought processes most humans can understand. The only thing Kirrah’s Captain is able to do before the ship blows apart is to order all of his crew into their survival suits and get a “mail tube” off to inform his superiors that something hinky is going on.
When Kirrah regains consciousness, she realizes she’s on the surface of the planet. (Hallman deftly accounts for this by the survival suit having its own drop bubble with a gel interior. Apparently the technology is now so good, it was able to “go to ground” on its own, without any information from Kirrah herself.) And while the planet is beautiful to look at, everything seems poisonous . . . worse yet, she believes everyone on her ship except her died instantly.
Then she discovers a young boy wandering in the middle of the forest. (Or, as I thought of it, a “forest-swamp,” as it appeared to have characteristics of both.) The boy, Akaray, warns Kirrah of an imminent attack by some of the local wildlife, and rouses all of her latent maternal instincts.
She quickly realizes that something is badly wrong. Akaray is crying, and between her own knowledge and her suit’s translator (which isn’t perfect, but gets the gist of things fairly quickly), she figures out that he’s lost his parents and everyone he knows due to his village being destroyed.
You see, there’s a war going on between two factions on this planet — the more or less peaceful people (who don’t seem to have a clan name; they do follow a King, but he’s elected rather than hereditary) and the rather obnoxious Wrth. The peaceful people have priest-healers who use something akin to Reiki healing with perhaps a bit of touch-empathy or even low levels of touch-telepathy, and just want to be left alone, while the Wrth are raiders who don’t seem to either have the priest-healers at all, or at minimum do not value them.
And the Wrth have allied themselves somehow with the Kruss, even though they don’t fully understand this . . . but Kirrah, of course, figures it out fairly quickly. This is the primary reason she’s made Warmaster, and is chosen to lead the fight the Wrth.
Kirrah also finds love in a most unlikely place — with Ro’tachk Irshe, a senior enlisted man. Irshe is old enough to respect Kirrah’s intelligence while young enough to appreciate the pleasures of the flesh . . . and as the peaceful people Kirrah’s helping don’t seem to have the same hang-ups regarding sex that Regnum-trained humans do (perhaps because of the priest-healers and their Reiki-like skills), they become lovers.
Down the line, Kirrah will have to decide: Does she want to stay on this world with Irshe and his people, the ones she’s been leading in order to throw off the Kruss’s noxious influence? Or will she go back to the Regnum? (Further reviewer sayeth not.)
So there’s action-adventure here, in spades. There’s a more-or-less traditional romantic science fiction plotline as well, and a coming of age story for Kirrah, and there’s all that interesting stuff from the priests . . . not to mention some dreams and visions that may or may not have a psychic component to them. And the new world is compelling, the science makes sense (hallelujah!), the military acts in comprehensible ways, both in the Regnum and on this new world . . . all good.
But there is one teensy-weensy drawback here, and that’s how quickly Kirrah adapts to everything.
Look. IRONSTAR has a lot going for it. It’s intelligent and interesting, the characterization is good, I believed in the romance between Kirrah and Irshe, and even the “fish out of water” element was carried off with aplomb.
But Kirrah doesn’t have many weaknesses. She’s impetuous, sure. But she’s young. And she’s very smart, and she’s very adaptable, and she’s adopted a kid despite her youth . . . really, in some ways, Kirrah seems almost too good to be true, excepting that darkness within her that, as the priest-healers keep pointing out, makes her the exceptional military commander she is.
But that makes me wonder why Kirrah was on the Arvida-Yee at all. Is the Regnum so stocked with good military commanders that they were willing to turn Kirrah away? Or did they just flat miss the fact that Kirrah could be exceptionally good if she was pushed to her limits?
Regardless, Kirrah is here, the world is here, and what Kirrah does is worth reading about. I just wish she would’ve had some obvious personal weaknesses aside from being young and impetuous, that’s all. (Mostly because I wanted to give IRONSTAR an A-plus, but just can’t under the circumstances.)
Bottom line? I enjoyed UPFALL and IRONSTAR quite a bit. This is excellent fiction with some solid science and some good, believable romances in the bargain . . . and I look forward to seeing more of Hallman’s writing in the future.
UPFALL – A-plus.
IRONSTAR – A.
— reviewed by Barb