Books : reviews

James L. Cambias.
A Darkling Sea.
Tor. 2014

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 24 June 2018

On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a group of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The Terran explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their previous extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don’t disturb the Ilmataran habitat, they’re free to conduct their missions in peace.

But when Henri Kerlerec, media personality and reckless adventurer, ends up sliced open by curious Ilmatarans, tensions between Terran and Sholen erupt, leading to a diplomatic disaster that threatens to escalate to war.

Against the backdrop of deep-sea guerilla conflict, three alien cultures collide. Both Terrans and Sholen seek the aid of the newly enlightened Ilmatarans. But what this struggle means for the natives—and the future of human exploration—is anything but certain.

Ilmatar is home to a newly-discovered alien species, that lives in total darkness under thick ice, at extremely high pressures and deadly cold, building a civilisation around the energy available from hot vents. Humans have a scientific base nearby, observing the aliens. But they are forbidden from interacting with them by the Sholen, another alien species that so nearly destroyed itself that it now insists on consensus in everything, and minimising any interference with new contacts. But then the meddling humans accidentally make contact with the Ilmatarans, which might lead to war with the not-so-unified Sholen.

This is an interesting view of three very different species: the relatively primitive Ilmatarans, the superior but reclusive Sholen, and the humans. None of these is a homogeneous culture: the plot is driven as much by conflicts within as between species. Not all the Sholens are that convinced of consensus and there are different political sub-groups to be considered; not all the Ilmatarans are civilised; not all the humans are very scientific. There's a semi-amusing thread running through, as the humans and Sholens keep incorrectly predicting how the others will react, based on completely incorrect stereotypes they have of each other.

The majority of the plot takes place in the dark cold ocean beneath a kilometer of ice, giving an extra claustrophobic edge to the tensions between the three species. The background is well drawn: the Ilmataran life-cycle, language and living arrangements are gradually revealed; how the humans can live below the ice is engagingly info-dumped. There are a couple of distressing deaths: these are not described in gory detail, leaving it to the imagination to fill in the blanks. Some of the humans seem to get much too worked up about events, while others seem surprisingly unemotional about everything. But on the whole, this is an interesting story about conflicts between species who have completely different philosophies that are partly a result of their completely different physiologies.

James L. Cambias.
Tor. 2015

Elizabeth Santiago and David Schwartz, two genius computer programmers with different goals, meet at MIT. Nearly ten years later, David is raking in money hacking for international thieves, while Elizabeth works in intelligence, preventing space piracy.

David and Elizabeth fight for dominance of the computer systems controlling lunar ore drops. Each one intuits that the other is their real competition, but can’t prove it. After losing a major shipment, Elizabeth leaves government employ to work for a private space company to find a better way to protect shipments. But international piracy has very high stakes and some very evil players. And both Elizabeth and David are in for a world of trouble.

James L. Cambias.
Arkad's World.
Baen. 2019

Cross a mad planet for treasure—and freedom

Young Arkad is the only human on a distant world, on his own among beings from across the Galaxy. His struggle to survive on the lawless streets of an alien city is disrupted by the arrival of three humans: an eccentric historian named Jacob, a superhuman cyborg girl called Baichi, and a mysterious ex-spy known as Ree. They seek a priceless treasure that might free Earth from alien domination.

Arkad risks everything to join them on an incredible quest halfway across the planet. With his help, they cross the fantastic landscape, battling pirates, mercenaries, bizarre creatures, vicious bandits, and the harsh environment. But the deadliest danger comes from treachery and betrayal within the group, as dark secrets and hidden loyalties come to light.

James L. Cambias.
The Initiate.
Baen. 2020

The sorcerers who rule the world are going down!

The Apkallu are masters of magic. They rule the world from the shadows, using mind control and deadly monsters to eliminate any threat to their power. Sam Arquero lost his family to a demon sent by an Apkallu. He knew that nobody would believe the truth, but now an old man offers Sam the chance to find out who is responsible and bring down the Apkallu forever.

Under a new identity, Sam must learn the secrets of magic, infiltrate the Apkallu, and walk a razor’s edge of daring as he attempts to destroy the Apkallu leaders and avoid the supernatural detectives on his trail. But Sam’s greatest challenge perhaps lies within—to avoid becoming like the hated Apkallu himself!

James L. Cambias.
The Godel Operation.
Baen. 2021

A droid and his boy in the tenth millenium

Daslakh is an AI with a problem. Its favorite human, a young man named Zee, is in love with a woman who never existed. But in the Tenth Millennium, a billion worlds circle the Sun—everything from terraformed planets to artificial habitats, home to a quadrillion beings. Zee is convinced she’s out there somewhere. Then Zee helps Adya—a girl, but definitely not his dream girl—escape a gang of crooks. To get away, the pair must join the hunt for the Godel Trigger, a legendary weapon left over from the ancient war between humans and machines. Now Daslakh must aid in the search, keep Zee’s love life on the right track, and make sure that nobody discovers the real secret of the Godel Trigger—for that would spell doom for men, machines, and the Solar System itself!