Flame Tree Press
I encountered author Allen Stroud in April 2020, when I reviewed the Forgotten Sidekicks anthology which had recently been published by Kristell Ink. I was greatly impressed by his contribution, the short story Saving Simon which took us into a gritty and realistic world of superpowers; Stroud examined the all-too human costs of using those powers, even in the pursuit of goals we might consider good, and the fact that having super-powers cannot protect one from betrayal from those close to you, especially if they perceive you to be doing the wrong thing – even if for the right reasons. Action-packed and thought-provoking, Saving Simon was one of the highlights of the anthology, and I made a note to look out for other titles written by Stroud in the future. As such, I was very pleased to be contacted by Stroud himself and offered an advanced review copy of his upcoming sci-fi thriller Fearless, which was being released by no less a publisher than the awesome Flame Tree Press. Flame Tree Press are a deeply impressive publisher that release high-quality titles across several genres, so that reputation combined with Stroud’s obvious skill as a writer made it an extremely easy decision to accept the review copy. The cover art for Fearless was suitably impressive, with a cool-looking spaceship soaring through space and some striking font choices; and the back-cover blurb easily drew me in with some tantalising plot elements that seemed to differentiate the novel from its countless competitors in the genre.
Fearless is set in the early 22nd century in a universe where humanity has colonised wide swathes of local space, setting up colonies on many of the planets in the solar system that are supplied by vast commercial freighters that run back and forth along the trade routes established between the colonies and far-distant Earth. It’s a difficult and stressful career to run those freighters, with accidents and disasters a routine occurrence, and as such the Earth-based United Fleet Consortium maintains a flotilla of vessels that constantly roam the trade routes answering distress calls. Captain Elisa Shann, a highly talented and experienced spacefarer commands one of these vessels, the search and rescue starship Khidr. On a routine mission, the decision to answer a distress call from the corporate freighter Hercules leads to Shann and her crew stumbling into a deeply complex and thoroughly dangerous situation when a routine search and rescue situation turns into something far more sinister and far-reaching than Shann could ever have imagined. A freighter crew that has been brutally massacred, a mysterious cargo, and the shocking realisation that there is a murderer on-board the Khidr is the only beginning of a terrifying and revelatory journey for Shann.
I think one of the things that impressed me the most about Fearless was the decision by Stroud to base the novel on the crew of a civilian search and rescue vessel, which is a rather refreshing change from the usual genre archetypes of the crew of a smuggling vessel, or the crew of a military warship of some description. It gives us a different perspective to the usual space-based scifi/space opera narratives, with Shann and her crew providing what is effectively an ‘outsiders’ perspective to the clashes between powerful corporations and the United Fleet Consortium as the colonisation of the solar system slowly progresses to the very limits of the system. Because while Stroud does give us an overarching plot that makes use of the common genre scenario of ‘Corporations versus Governments’, at no point does it fall into the numerous pitfalls common to the genre. Matters are far more complex than they first seem to Shann and the crew of the Khidr, and Stroud weaves a multi-faceted and masterful narrative that demonstrates that both the corporations and UFC are undertaking their own objectives and machinations that are equally morally, ethically and legally dubious, and equally threatening to Shann and her crew who should – in theory – be completely neutral and focused only on rescuing vessels and their crews who are in distress. Danger comes from both the corporate interests and the UFC which should be in support of Shann and the Khidr, with Stroud deftly avoiding the stale stereotype of ‘evil corporation against heroic/competent Earth-based government’ and in the process making Fearless far more engaging than its competitors. This is aided by vivid excerpts from Earth-based media articles and video transcripts which demonstrate that while this might be a future with spaceflight and colonies deep in the solar system, there continue to be massive social and economic inequalities which are exacerbated by continuous conflict between corporations and the governments of Earth. Stroud melds it all together to create a compelling, appealing and well-rounded narrative that helps propel the plot while also doing an impressive amount of world-building that will benefit future titles in the series.
That impressive world-building is allied to an inherent understanding of the ‘hard scifi’ concept of operating in the void of deep space, with the importance of major – and even minor – decisions being highlighted routinely throughout the novel. Altering the course of a vessel means burning more fuel, which in turn means less to get to another destination in order to refuel and resupply, and more oxygen and supplies consumed. Accelerating and decelerating have to be perfectly judged to avoid damage to the vessel and its occupants, with the gruesome consequences of not taking proper safety precautions in a ship changing course and being put under significant gravitational force being vividly demonstrated in the opening chapters of the novel. A crewmember dies under horrific circumstances when their restraint seat malfunctions and throws them clear when the Khidr undertakes a course correction towards the distress call from the Hercules, what little is left of them indicating both the inherent dangers of spaceflight, and the specific dangers of being on a spaceship where a traitorous crewmember can sabotage a restraint seat. Stroud brings us into a universe where ‘spacing’ a crewmember is entirely permissible under UFC rules if the commander of a vessel judges it as their punishment, or requires it to save the vessel and its cargo; and where people are merely seen as living cargo, to be treated as commodities in exactly the same manner as the cargo they transport. It makes for a hard-nosed and chilling setting, as well as a major element of the underlying tension in the novel. From the realities of space travel to the steps required for conducting reconnaissance and rescue operations in zero-g, as well as the ad-hoc repairs that have to be conducted in emergencies, it becomes obvious that Stroud has put a huge amount of thought a research into this novel. Not only is this reflected in almost every page of Fearless, but is also the core basis for why the novel works so well – there is a deeply impressive consistency that ensures that at no point are we, as readers, pulled out of the story by some inaccuracy or research error.
Even the most well-written and researched novel can be derailed by poor characterisation and two-dimensional characters, so I’m pleased to advise that Stroud’s characters are just as thrilling and well-constructed as the rest of the novel. I found myself liking protagonist Captain Shann as soon as I started reading the novel, her character grabbing me and refusing to let go with her unapologetic, badass attitude; in space, a lack of legs doesn’t mean anything, zero-g mitigating her disability and allowing her the freedom that wouldn’t be found on a planet with traditional gravity. She has a no-nonsense appeal to her as she leads the crew of the Khidr into the rapidly-escalating chaos of the Hercules rescue and everything that unfolds from there, and even when things were at their worst I was impressed by Stroud’s depiction of her trying to keep calm and professional even when confronted with issues she could never have trained for. Shann has a fascinating background that is explored in dreams and flash-back sequences, and I’d be intrigued to see a short-story or novella detailed her earlier career prior to the events of Fearless. The other characters featured in the novel are just as well fleshed-out, feeling like three-dimensional crewmembers even when they only appear for a relatively short space of time. Stroud deftly develops the atmosphere within the Khidr of a crew dealing with stressful search and rescue missions while also dealing with their own duties, as well as the problems caused by the mysterious murder. Each crewmember is a professional, with diverse backgrounds and their own personal issues that make them interesting in their own way; this in turns makes later events in the novel far more understandable, with betrayals and treachery making sense to the reader because Stroud has taken the time to develop the characters and their varying motivations. These then dovetail nicely with the murder-mystery elements that get introduced into the plot, Stroud deftly doling out clues every so often to keep the reader interested without overwhelming them, as an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia slowly infects the Khidr and sees crewmembers turning on each other in tense, often action-packed sequences.
Fearless is a brilliant achievement, and one of the best science-fiction novels I have read in a very long time. Stroud has produced a tense, atmospheric and masterfully-written title with a thought-provoking and engaging plot supported by a cast of colourful and unique characters that all combine to create a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The novel features a vibrant, original universe that acts as the setting for a compelling and complex, multi-faceted plot that hints at a huge amount happening beyond the perceptions of Shann and her surviving crewmembers, resulting in near-unlimited potential for sequels and – hopefully – an entire series. Fearless is a fantastic read, one that I raced through in a very short amount of time, and I truly hope that Stroud gets the chance to work with Flame Tree Press again to write a second book in the series. I’ll certainly be the first to pick it up if there is one.