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A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe

January 12, 2021

Alex White’s A Big Ship At the Edge of the Universe surprised and delighted me at almost every turn.

The friend who read it with me, Jodie, agreed that we didn’t expect it to start with the story of a seemingly earth-bound race car driver, Nilah Brio, who competes with other magic-users in the “Pan-Galactic Racing Federation.” When she prepares for a race “her magic flowed into the car, sliding around the finely tuned ports, wending through channels to latch onto gears” and each driver checks for “power, fuel flow, sigil circuits, eidolon core.”

Jodie: Yes, the level of race detail was unexpected. I actually used to watch Formula One, and am a fan of motorcycle racing, but I’m not a gear head so the level of technical detail just wasn’t for me.

Jeanne: Soon enough, though, we end up in outer space and realize that the planet is one called Clarkesfall, as we leave it. We’ve been introduced to Elizabeth Elsworth, who goes by “Boots” and has a complicated relationship with her former captain and the crew of the ship where she and Nilah have been taken prisoner. We find out that Boots has a very rare condition called “arcane dystocia,” meaning she was born without a “cardioid” and has no magic. As in Harry Potter, she is called rude names because of this, like “dull-fingers,” “null,” or “sparkless.”

Jodie: The point where Boots’ and Cordell’s relationship begins to emerge was where the book really got going for me, and I think that creating a whole set of relationships for the reader to get their teeth into is really the book’s strength. Boots and Cordell are the world-weary comrades with history; not all of it pleasant. And it’s interesting to see how that relationship develops from an antagonistic and, in Cordell’s case, manipulative one, laced with regret and platonic longing, to a re-constructed partnership that is in some ways more equal even as Boots still reports to Cordell as her Captain.

Jeanne: The ship that Nilah and Boots leave Clarkesfall in is the Capricious. We find out that Boots and Cordell, the captain, survived what they call the Famine War. Cordell kept the ship, and Boots kept a military AI she calls Kin, constructed from her memories of a comrade in the war, Kinnard. She “bought his voice from the mnemonimancer.” Boots sells maps to treasures of the galaxy and has previously found one herself. The one Cordell is interested in is a big space cruiser “capable of frying a whole city” called the Harrow, said to be out there somewhere at the edge of the universe. Boots believes that “every legend is a fluffy story wrapped around a piece of hard evidence,” and that eventually turns out to be true of the Harrow.

There’s a villain with massive power from a mix of magic and technology that no one on the crew of the Capricious understands at first, but uniting against her villainy causes Nilah and Boots to become part of the crew.

Nilah develops a relationship with a crew member, a young fighter named Orna.

Jodie: Orna and Nilah’s relationship starts off kind of working the ‘opposites attract’ angle. Orna’s rough and ready. Nilah’s posh and monied. Nilah believes in fancy, taught fighting styles. Orna believes in brute force. The attraction, at least for Nilah, happens on sight, but I don’t think either of them believes there could be more to their relationship until they start to use their mechanist magic together and bond over trying to save the universe. However, I think once they’re united by the experience of working together, fighting together, and losing people together they’re able to give in fully to their feelings about each other.

I mention losing people together because Orna’s other significant relationship is with her fighting armour – Ranger. I am a huge sucker for friendships between AI and humans so the relationship between Orna and Ranger was one of my favourites, and I was sad to see it end so painfully. I think the lines that hit me hardest in this book are when Orna says to Nilah that “Ranger was a good boy” and Nilah says “Ranger was perfect, to the very end….He was a masterpiece.” In the context of what happens to Ranger, which I won’t spoil here, this is a very important moment in Nilah and Orna’s relationship, and one which I think definitely bonds them closely.

Jeanne: There are battles, in space, on ships, and one in a racing car on a planet. The battles get increasingly complicated as they try to counter the villain’s massive power and as more people in the galaxy realize they’re after the Harrow and try to kill them before they can find it. Even though there’s magic, there’s plenty of fighter pilot maneuvering and good descriptions, like when Boots takes out her old fighter ship: “she throttled up…and inertia pressed her into her seat. She’d finally started to acclimate to her old settings, and the sporty discomfort gave her an edge in a fight. All the combat actions had resurrected her instincts from the bad old days, and she felt sharp as a knife; a little rusty, but still dangerous.”

Jodie: I still feel like I don’t see a ton of sci-fi/fantasy mixes out there where you get magic and tech mixed together. I think N.K Jemisin and Kameron Hurley are two of the biggest names out there writing these kinds of books right now. So, interesting to see White writing this mix of magic and big spaceships.

Jeanne: When they find the Harrow, all its secrets are revealed, going all the way back to 2869, “the same year everything on Clarkesfall began to die. The year before the Famine War began.” Even the racetracks Nilah has been racing on get tied in–every detail contributes to the plot. The crew are the good guys, but even they are tempted by the god-like power they’ve discovered, although they talk each other down from it pretty quick, with Boots saying at one point “we’re all glad you stopped with the genocide talk, but we’ve got to think this through.” Their final plan to save all life in the galaxy, including their own, is complicated, audacious, barely successful, and requires an unexpected sacrifice.

Jodie: I think this is probably one of the best bits of the book. When we finally learn just what’s been going on it’s a truly epic plot on the scale of some of the biggest evil plots in traditional sci-fi. And White manages to convince us that the good guys, small team though they may be, would actually defeat this huge, expansive operation.

Jeanne: When one of the good guys wakes up after their final battle, she finds herself in the most perfect place I can imagine, better than a hospital room, maybe even better than the room Frodo wakes up in at Rivendell: “her eyes creaked open to find a shady room, its ceiling a canopy of swaying palm fronds in the fresh sea air. She raised her head above the cocoon of pillows and clean linens to find billowing curtains, and through them, an impossibly bright emerald sea.”

Boots, of course, finds out that because of her lack of magic she was able to kill the bad guys “when everyone buckled.” Cordell tells her “you may have saved an entire galaxy.”

It’s a grand space adventure with reluctant heroes and happy endings, but it’s never predictable. A good book to read with a friend!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2021 7:43 am

    Wow, I read this book but I remember absolutely NONE of this, which should be an object lesson to me to write about books on the blog before they fall out of my head. I didn’t even remember the whole thing about mixing science and magic, which is wild because that’s one of my favorite tropes. BRAINS.

    • January 18, 2021 10:45 am

      I wrote parts of this before the holidays and then Jodie wrote some of her parts after, and I think the details might have been hard to remember if I’d waited. This is an interesting observation about this novel–I wonder if, because I found it a page-turner, I read it so fast I didn’t completely understand who is doing what to who, as the plot is complicated and the characters very interesting!

  2. January 12, 2021 10:05 am

    Interesting review with both yours and your friend’s views 😊

    • January 18, 2021 10:46 am

      Thanks! It’s a great way to break up a blogging routine, occasionally reading and then writing about a book with a friend.


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