One of my biggest defects, and at the same time one of my biggest virtues, is that I rarely say no to a task or a challenge. Not that I don’t like what I usually do, but as soon as I’m facing something new I barely can think of anything else.
This is why when last month an agent contacted me and asked me for an honest review of a sci-fi book, I decided to challenge myself and accept, even though science fiction is not exactly my jam. But the book premise showed glimpses of a badass woman in charge of a spaceship and I have a soft spot for badass women (maybe one day I’ll be able to write one, too). And, stupid as it might sound, the spaceship crew setting gave me the killjoys vibes.
This is how I decided to read “The year before the end” by Vidar Hokstad and why I’m talking about it, with some context about why my review might differ with respect to the reviews of your typical science-fiction aficionado.
One of the things that made reading the book special was that I had nothing to compare it to (well, aside from Killjoys, of course), and almost no expectation. Even if I had some, though, they would have been twisted less than ten pages in.
Man, Vidar Hokstad made some research (or has very deep knowledge about outer space). I was expecting the science behind space colonization to be overlooked or twisted as it was in the few science-fiction books I read as a kid. Maybe it’s because gravity in space is lower than on Earth, but when I read a sci-fi book or watched a sci-fi show (not very often, but still) I felt that science fictions writer expected their readers to make a higher leap into the realm of suspension of disbelief, and never detail things such as the absence of an atmosphere on Mars or the movement of rigid bodies (including space stations and spaceships) with low to no gravity.
The first chapters contain a lot of such information, and pretty much every maneuver in space is detailed and justified according to some law of physics. I have to admit it’s quite a risky thing to do as you might alienate your reader, but in this book, it worked. I’ve been saying “Oh, right, how could I not think about that until now!” a lot, and almost forgot that the story didn’t seem to pick up in the first few chapters.
But then it picked up, and even though there were no twists or huge surprises and revelations, I liked how it was blended with themes about the exploration of space and the fear of something new.
But let’s give you a bit of context. After being ignored for thousands of years, inhabitants of Earth finally receive a message from outer space that anticipates the opening of a high-speed transportation channel between the Solar System and the Centauri system. As it always happens when something new and unexpected comes, humans are either thrilled about the opportunity of something new and terrorized by it. When someone sees the opportunity for improvement and for new possibilities, someone sees a threat, and many entities get ready for a war with alien forces, even though no war threat has been made. You know, humans.
Amidst this growing cosmic paranoia, we get to know captain Zora Ortega and her crew of mercenaries, accepting missions around the Solar system. Of course, they’ll embark on a mission that turns out to be much more complicated and dangerous than it seemed before we know about its connection with the new Centauri portal. There will be action, there will be treason, there will be escapes into outer space.
As I said, I enjoyed the theme of the book: the author did a great job of depicting the reaction of mankind when faced with something new and unknown, how they divide into enthusiasts, Cassandras, and sneaky people just trying to exploit the novelty. And I loved the subtle stab the author threw at the human vanity when he said that the aliens had been ignoring Earth for centuries.
I also enjoyed the speculative science lessons about terraforming and spaceship landing, even though it caused us to really get to know captain Ortega only after the book midpoint. She doesn’t give away much about herself and shows little to no emotion, aside from a few pages that intrigued the fangirl living inside me. I can turn a blind eye to the lack of deep character insight if it’s about a minor character (or one I don’t care about), but I was expecting to get more familiar with the one who was supposed to be the protagonist of the story. It seemed a bit off, especially because, on the other hand, the story was told through the eyes of a few of them and they all had their unique voice. They were just hard to connect to at times.
To end my review on a happier note, the galaxy still isn’t safe at the end of the book: the war threat is still looming over the galaxy and of course captain Ortega and her crew are asked to help to prevent it. The kind of offer you can’t refuse, even if you wanted to. And in my opinion, this applies to us readers as well.
I think that a reader making it through the end of the first book can’t do without reading the sequel as well, because of how well the author set up things for a continuation of the story. I won’t miss the occasion to get to know Zora better (did I already say that I have a soft spot for badass women?) as she tries to save the galaxy.