The Fractured Void
Twilight Imperium is one of those board games that I’ve always desperately wanted to play – mixing space exploration, combat, in-depth strategy and a really cool world-building canon – but unfortunately never had the time or funds to actually purchase and play. For those who might not be familiar with the Twilight Imperium universe, it’s set in a vast region of space that contains the numerous Great Races who were once the subjects of the mighty Lazax Empire; but when the Empire fell, centuries ago, the Empire’s former subjects liberated themselves and instead began scheming, plotting and waging war against each other in an attempt to seize power. Not only do mighty fleets wage interstellar combat in the depths of space, but secretive operatives and mercenary teams fight an endless and secretive war to procure the many secrets of the Lazax Empire – and other, even more enigmatic and dangerous foes. It’s a setting with near-endless potential, and the perfect place to set a space opera – which leads us to The Fractured Void by Tim Pratt, the first novel set in the Twilight Imperium setting, and released by one of my favourite publishers, Aconyte Books. It certainly bears mentioning that Pratt may well be the most distinguished author that Aconyte have managed to work with so far, which says a great deal considering just how talented their roster of authors has been in general. Pratt has won a Hugo Award, acts as a senior editor on Locus magazine, and has been nominated for a host of awards in the Scifi and Fantasy genres. I’ve come across some of his stories before and been greatly impressed, and as such I was eager to see just what he could do with Twilight Imperium as a setting.
We are presented with an intriguing back-cover blurb that promises an epic space opera, in which a starship crew are embroiled in interplanetary political intrigues and scheming, in which the ultimate prize may well be control of the entire galaxy. My interest was piqued further by the amazing cover art by Scott Schomburg, a hugely evocative piece that shows a spaceship flying through the depths of space, fighters and what appear to be the wrecks of other vessels scattered around it, a planet looming menacingly in the background. I understand that this is actually just one piece of a much larger work of art that will be expanded in future sequels to The Fractured Void, and I look forward to seeing them brought together into one piece. Out protagonists for our intergalactic adventure are the three-person crew of the Temerarious, a light cruiser belonging to the Mentak Coalition, one of the many factions formed from the imploding of the Lazax Empire; former prisoners, the Coalition has become a nation-state of pirates and raiders, often raiding the vessels and orbital facilities of other races in order to acquire resources and technology, or just plunder in general. For Captain Felix Duval, however, the prospects for gaining any riches seem distinctly remote: having crossed one too many superior officers in his career, he’s been ‘promoted’ to command of the Temerarious and assigned to a quiet, remote sector where nothing ever happens. The highlight of the tedious patrol is using the cruiser’s sensor array to search for missing sheep on asteroids. Accompanied by best friend and First Officer Tib Pelta, an infiltration specialist able to turn invisible, and taciturn security officer Calred, Felix is doing his best to serve out his time and get back to better prospects.
However, the tedium of their existence is interrupted by an abrupt distress call; racing to the scene, Duval and his crew find themselves confronted with heavily-armed mercenaries kidnapping someone from a nearby planet. Besting the mercenaries with the assistance of a nearby raiding flotilla (one of the advantages of belonging to a Coalition of pirates) Duval finds himself rescuing Thales, a deeply unpleasant and abrasive scientist that claims to have discovered the ability to artificially generate wormholes that can span the known galaxy at will. Hoping to dump the scientist back on his planet – or preferably out of an airlock – Duval is aghast to suddenly find himself and his crew assigned the dubious honour of assisting Thales with developing his technology, the Coalition considering it worthwhile to see if the scientist can actually deliver on his promises. Unhappy, but buoyed by vague promises of career advancement and riches, Duval finds himself engaged in a variety of ethically and morally-dubious acts to get Thales the resources and technology he needs to complete his project. Along the way, the small band will find themselves pursued by an amoral human mercenary, a survivor of the initial attempt to kidnap Thales, and an alien security operative desperate to secure Thales for herself and rebuild her shattered reputation. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Duval slowly becomes aware that there are powers beyond mortal comprehension that are intensely interested in Thales’ project, and may do anything to stop it coming to fruition.
As the above highlights, The Fractured Void certainly has Space Opera elements in spades, and the feel of a plot that could potentially become as dense and complex as your average Space Opera novel; the sort of thing that could have a dozen subplots, a hundred different characters, and a pagecount to rival A Song of Ice and Fire in one book alone. And perhaps under a different author and publisher, that might well have been the case, resulting in a bloated, confusing and impenetrable work of fiction. But there’s a reason why Pratt has won a Hugo Award, and why Aconyte have been so phenomenally successful in publishing since they started – they both unquestionably know what they’re doing when it comes to books. In Pratt’s hands, The Fractured Void is an absolute delight, the sort of Space Opera story that I wish they all were – flawlessly written, with a thoroughly engaging and fast-paced plot, and populated with some of the most memorable characters I’ve read in a science-fiction novel in quite some time. And to round it all out, Pratt has a wickedly dry sense of humour that found me chuckling, if not outright laughing out loud, every other page; it’s not often that I’ll go back and re-read a page several times over, just to appreciate the joke, or cutting remark, or perfectly-timed quip, but I found myself doing that regularly as I went through the novel.
Much of that humour – and dramatic tension as well – comes from the quality and depth of the characters. Duval is a great protagonist, skilful and level-headed while still sufficiently inexperienced in the dark arts of deniable operations to be surprised by some of the opponents he faces; and his relationship with Tib and Calred is one of the greatest elements of the novel, the three of them developing into an interesting and effective team with their own strengths and weaknesses. Thales starts out as a typical, almost generic Mad Scientist, spitting insults and making arrogant quips and asides; but as the novel progresses, Pratt deftly develops him into a three-dimensional character, with some surprising motivations when compared to what his character archetype usually focuses on. And antagonists Amina Azad and Severyne Dampierre make a fantastic tag-team, initially fighting each other, but forced to come to a combative and temporary alliance to pursue Duval and recapture Thales; there are some real surprises in the way in which their association develops that I wasn’t expecting. Pratt encompasses all of his deft plot-weaving and character development in a fantastically realised world, taking the Twilight Imperium setting and really putting his own stamp on it; I don’t want to give too much away given how exciting and atmospheric the plot is, but I was thoroughly impressed by all of the background detail he added, and the alien races that get fleshed out as the plot races towards the cliff-ender epilogue.
The Fractured Void is the epitome of what a Space Opera should truly be – detailed, complex and full of rich and engaging characters, while simultaneously allied to a galaxy-spanning plot that moves along at a fast pace with no extraneous detail or pointless side-plots, and written with a genuine sense of tension and a healthy dose of wry humour. Tim Pratt has created something truly epic with The Fractured Void, with the last third of the novel clearly leading into something incredibly dark and dangerous, yet also hugely exciting. There’s a huge amount of potential for this series, and I genuinely cannot wait for the publication of The Necropolis Empire later in the year; indeed, it’s difficult to remember a science-fiction book that I’ve been so passionate about in quite some time. If you buy one book from Aconyte Publishing this year, then this absolutely has to be the one.