Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review - CassaFire by Alex J. Cavanaugh

Short review: A pilot haunted by his past. A planet with alien artifacts. An exotic alien beauty with unexpected talents.

A weary hero
Fly to an alien world
But there is danger

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: CassaFire is the sequel to CassaStar, continuing the story of Byron, telepathic pilot and hero of the Vindicarn War. Set twenty years after the end of the war that made him a hero and killed his closest friend Bassa, this book finds Byron working as a pilot on the exploration vessel Rennather, both fulfilling his promise to Bassa and hiding from his war-time legacy. The book focuses on the Rennather's mission to Tgren, a planet inhabited by a non-starfaring culture upon which ancient alien artifacts have been found. Full of telepaths, ancient alien technology, and star travel, the book seems reminiscent of the style of Andre Norton's work, and if the name on the cover were changed from Cavanaugh's to hers it would not seem entirely out of place filed in the "N" section.

The central plot element of the book is the Cassan discovery of alien ruins found on the planet Tgren. The Rennather has been sent to explore these ruins, and, cementing this book firmly in the category of space opera, recover any advanced alien technology that they find. Somewhat complicating matters is the fact that Tgren is inhabited by a comparatively primitive culture that has only barely discovered flight and among whose populace telepathic powers have recently begun to manifest. This last point is as important as the alien artifacts, as Cassan space travel technology is heavily reliant upon the abilities of the telepathically inclined, making the Tgrens a potentially valuable ally for the Cassans. Unfortunately, to provide a plot complication, we are told that the culturally conservative Tgrens are both resentful of outsiders, and are disturbed by the existence of "freakish" telepaths among their own people. Sadly, this conservatism on the part of the Tgrens never really seemed to manifest until the very end of the story other than a collection of dire warnings from local politicians.

Although Byron is "only" a shuttle pilot on the Rennather, he is also one of the two men who pilot a Darten, the light and quick fighter that is used to defend the larger ship from hostile encounters, and this leads to him being assigned to train the best Tgren pilots. In addition, as Byron is a skilled telepath, he is assigned to train the best telepath the Tgren have to offer. Coincidentally, the best telepath and the best pilot on Tgren happen to be the same person. Even more coincidentally, this person turns out to be Athee, a very attractive woman and the niece of the local political power broker. This, of course, puts Byron in the middle of all of the back and forth between the Cassans of the Rennather and puts him front and center to become the object of Athee's affections, setting up the will-they-won't-they romance that forms the core of much of the story. The only oddity relating to Athee is the well-developed nature of her psychic powers - if the Tgrens have only recently seen the emergence of such abilities among their populace, her extraordinary aptitude, which rivals even that of a Cassan who is near the top of capabilities of the telepathically gifted Cassans, seems to be an almost unbelievably rapid manifestation.

And to connect Byron to the archaeological end of the story, Byron befriends an extremely young linguist named Mevine who is participating in the excavation of the alien site. Mevine also brings up Byron's past as a Cosbolt pilot in the Vindicarn War, and the loss of his navigator Bassa (which presumably makes up much of the plot of the book CassaStar) which pulls Byron's own insecurities to the fore in the form of survivor guilt that is revealed when Mevine is unable to recall Bassa's name. And with all the pieces in place, the story proceeds at a fairly swift clip: Byron shuttles people around, gets maudlin about the war, trains Tgren pilots, trains Athee to tap into her psychic gifts, deals with local politics, resists falling in love with Athee, and eventually and inevitably gives in. Though the story is in many ways predictable, it is comfortably so and well-written, making it an enjoyable ride.

In the end, all the disparate threads come together in a dramatic ending, and although the ending does have something of a twist, it is a fairly standard style twist. CassaFire seems like it could have been written in the 1950s, with all the familiar cadences of Golden Age science fiction. And this gives it a familiar feel that makes the book seem like an old friend, even though it is new. If you are looking for a new space opera story with a thread of romance, then CassaFire is the book you are looking for.

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  1. Thank you very much for reviewing my book! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: It was quite good. I think you'd probably enjoy it.

  3. @Alex J. Cavanaugh: Thank you very much for writing it. Now I have to go and get a copy of CassaStar and see what I missed by not starting with that one!