Resilient (Fractal Series Book #2)
Flame Tree Press
When I reviewed Allen Stroud’s first novel, Fearless, back in July 2020, I had no hesitation in calling it one of the best science-fiction novels I had ever read – and a recent reread of it in preparation for this review has not changed my opinion even slightly. The masterful combination of a tense, atmospheric setting onboard the Search and Rescue spaceship Khidr; superb and multi-faceted characterization for the small but potent cast of characters that populated the novel; and some first-rate worldbuilding that created a vibrant, engaging and above-all original universe that avoided many of the cliches of the increasingly stale trope of ‘corporate-dominated space travel’. I was eager to see what Stroud would do with the setting and characters in the aftermath of Fearless and was therefore incredibly excited to hear that the sequel to the novel – entitled Resilient and now part of the ‘Fractal’ series – would be released in April 2022. I was able to grab an early Advanced Review Copy from NetGalley thanks to the generosity of the publisher, Flame Tree Press, and was eager to see what Allen had in store for me as a reader. The superb cover art from the first novel returns, catching the potential reader’s eye and drawing it in effortlessly, and the back-cover blurb intrigued me with its mentions of space-based revolution and eventual civil war when a devastating terrorist attack shatters the fragile links between the corporations and governments that led to the colonization of much of the solar system by the 22nd Century.
As the novel begins, a huge explosion tears apart the Atacama Solar Array in Chile, a gigantic facility that provides power to most of the population remaining on Earth. This is bad news for the population of Earth, but potentially fatal for those people living and working in the colonies populating the outer solar system; the corporations and governments sending them supplies will now turn inwards to resolve their own problems, and likely ignore or even abandon the colonists. One such colonist is Emerson Drake, a medical doctor living on Mars and working under a corporate contract; used to living a hardscrabble life on the Red Planet, Drake is surprised to suddenly be assigned to a mission to the moon of Phobos, as part of a team tending to a mining shuttle full of injured miners. As if that wasn’t stressful enough, Drake has just been informed of the fact that his brother, Jonathan, is missing along with the rest of the crew of the Khidr. Worried but unable to find out much about the ship’s status, Drake soon finds himself heading for Phobos and a dangerous assignment he knows too little about. At the same time, the surviving crewmembers of the Khidr are recovering from the chaos and treachery that led to many of them dying, and the need to make use of a new spaceship in the process. Captain Shann has been relieved of her command for her controversial actions in space, and her crew now have to decide whether to try and return to Earth on their new ship Gallowglass or stay and observe the strange anomaly that destroyed the remains of the Khidr. And as if that wasn’t enough, corporate captive Natalie Holder finds herself the subject of mystifying and horrifying experiments involving the transfer of her consciousness between bodies; lacking free will, and even the certainty of whether her memories and her emotions are her own or implants manufactured for the benefit of her captors, Holder’s only hope is a dangerous mission to Phobos and an encounter with the insurgents that have just captured the station. Thrown together in the chaos, Drake and Holder must work together to survive, while the remaining crew of the Khidr discover more about the conspiracies that destroyed their ship and almost killed them all.
Expanding on the worldbuilding he began in Fearless, Stroud presents us with a deeply intriguing look at a solar system that is increasingly under intense social, political and cultural tension from the blended corporate-government exploration and colonization of space, the current tensions smartly expanded upon through the inclusion of regular excerpts from news reports, speeches and reports throughout the late 21st Century that provide much-needed context to just how this public-private partnership developed and began to fray at the edges. We are given a view of a future in which government entities initially cooperated with private companies to launch missions from Earth to colonize Luna, Mars and set up a number of space stations scattered throughout the solar system, only for increasingly divergent and conflicting priorities to cause different sides to form as humanity expanded its reach throughout the void. Corporations chafe at government regulation and restrictions interfering with their attempts to extract profit from their ventures at the expense of their workers and their rights; and governments begin to resort to increasingly conspiratorial and brutal tactics to maintain their control over the solar system. While this sort of thing has been done many times before – The Expanse being one such equivalent – I don’t believe that any author has given such a crystal-clear view of how corporate and government attitudes can clash and diverge, nor cemented it with a fascinating and multi-faceted plot that always comes across as mysterious and intriguing rather than confusing, no matter how many additional elements Stroud adds. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to achieve, with many authors falling at their own versions of these self-imposed hurdles, but Stroud manages it with a smoothness and gravity that belies the huge amount of skill and talent this obviously took.
The fascinating narrative strands that arc throughout the novel – deftly blending together politics, military action, espionage and even such varied topics as the nature of consciousness, the development of Artificial Intelligence, and the difficulties of space travel – would not work anywhere near as well without a compelling and cohesive cast of characters – and fortunately Stroud is once again up to the job. The tensions amongst the surviving crewmembers of the Khidr are only exacerbated by the immense pressures they find themselves under as the interplanetary conspiracy they’re enmeshed in becomes more and more unraveled, and Stroud deftly pivots between multiple viewpoints amongst the crew. Ensign April Johansson makes for a sympathetic protagonist as we see her struggle to understand both how to undertake her duties – now apparently vital to the future of humanity – and also recover from the betrayal of so many of her friends in the crew and the subsequent blurring of the nature of command, when senior crew members are either traitors or so compromised by the things they had to do to survive that it seems impossible to either trust them or follow them. The nature of the chain of command and inherent trust in your seniors in a military setting is one of the most intriguing concepts that runs throughout the narrative, explored by Stroud through the eyes of Johansson and Captain Shann, a returning character from the first novel and someone who must now decide what leadership means to her – and whether further breaking the chain of command is necessary for survival despite its long-term consequences. However, the standout character in the novel must be Natalie Holder – someone who finds themselves turned into a living weapon by mysterious captors, who constantly experiment on her mind and memories in order to shape her into the operative they require for various assassination and commando operations, transferring her consciousness into different bodies for each mission and increasingly shattering her very sense of being. What happens to Holder is genuinely unsettling, an undercurrent of horror running through the spine of the novel – a woman desperately searching for her true self while being forcibly turned into a trained killer with no compulsion around murdering those who getting her way as she tries to find a way to escape her captivity. Stroud really gets into her mindscape and deftly demonstrates the realities of experimentation by corporations without any moral or ethical limits. Holder is a mysterious and multifaceted character I found myself instinctively drawn to – and want to see much more of in the future.
Resilient is one of those incredibly rare things – a sequel that actually improves on its predecessor. Stroud presents us with a complex, multifaceted science-fiction experience that offers a deeply compelling narrative, interlaced with rich and complex worldbuilding and three-dimensional characters that help to draw us into the vast and complex conspiracy slowly unfolding across the entire solar system. Resilient avoids all of the bloated padding and pointless subplots that usually plague the middle book in a trilogy, and instead delivers a taut, streamlined and fast-paced political thriller that races across the solar system, effortlessly bouncing between colonies, space stations and the depths of space while deftly exploring some fascinating and complex issues in an engaging and thought-provoking manner. With many narrative threads tied up and many new ones introduced, and existing ones expanded upon in intriguing and fascinating ways, Resilient sets the stage for an explosive set of revelations in the next book in the series, and also demonstrates just why Stroud is such a rapidly-rising star in the science-fiction genre. I genuinely cannot wait to see how things develop in the next novel, and I will be making time for it as soon as it becomes available. I would strongly recommend that you all do the same.