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A Darkling Sea

Posted by Dan Smyth On Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I harp a lot about how infrequently I find good Science Fiction.  I know it. Give me a megaphone and let me crow it from the rooftops.  I have no shame. Give no quarter, I say.  That is my opinion and I stand by it absolutely.

Still... it's nice to occasionally find that someone out there is listening.

A DARKLING SEA is James L. Cambias's debut novel.  It's got new planets, human explorers, and aliens. The thing is a perfect setup for conflict and struggle, but it's also a place to let our minds wander a little bit.

A sparsely-populated human research facility is located on the ocean floor of the ice-covered planet of Illmatar where a team of scientists have come to study the local population of aliens.  The only issue is that there is a no-contact policy in place, agreed upon by the governmental agencies of Earth and the alien planet of Shalina.  So, of course, the book starts out with some idiot in the facility deciding to go and do something stupid that violates the single-most important mandate of the mission. His motive:  greed.  Of course.  What else is there that matters in situations like these?  In the process he finds out that the Ilmatarans are nowhere near as primitive as they look and sets up the main conflict of the story.

The best aspect of this book was the world-building for the Ilmatarans. (Think very large, sentient, lobsters and you won't be far off.) The author spends a lot of time developing their societal structure, and morality; their lives and their language; their world and their ignorance of the wider universe.  He does this through POV characters of the Ilmataran race.

Now, I know that a lot of you probably just turned and ran away screaming because of the whole alien POV thing.  I have to admit that it was a huge red flag for me at first, because I've seen that done sooooo poorly sooooo many times.  In this case, the author actually does a pretty decent job of them though.  It was a risk, and in my book it paid off, because he was able to keep the alien species just familiar enough to make them sympathetic while still throwing in their obvious differences from humanity.  In fact, the development of the Ilmatarans pretty much over-shadowed the development of either of the others.

The second alien species, the Sholen, felt almost cartoonish in comparison, as there is only very little in the way of actual world-building development for them.  To put it as simply as possible, the Sholen were like oversized cougars with a heightened sense of sexual dominance and unified purpose. Although, in comparison to either of these, the humans in the story weren't much more than stick figures, with a limited array of personalities and emotional variance.  Some of the difficulty that I had with the characterization of each of these species probably had something to do with the fact that nearly the entire book was relayed with a very formal-sounding style of speech.  This worked just fine for the Ilmatarans, and even mostly for the Sholen, but it made the humans sound stilted and imaginary, and led to even the very-different alien species ending up sounding very similar in nature.

The pacing of the book was kind of hit-and-miss.  It started out great, with the initiation of the conflict happening right at the beginning.  That was a great way to start the book.  Just, BANG!  But afterward, things slowed down considerably.  The middle half of the book was where most of the Ilmataran development was, mostly portrayed to us through the eyes of two POV characters, Broadtail and Strongpincer.  While the scientists on the research facility continue their research, hoping for the best, these two Ilmatarans roam around the underwater world of Ilmatar and show us the scene.  Even after the Sholen show up (which we knew they eventually would, given the breaking of the contract at the beginning of the story), things stay very slow and circumspect, with very little tension to be had.

Once the final conflict does begin though, things pick up and get moving, culminating in the eventual, if long-in-coming, conflict foretold at the outset.  In this, the author has done a great job of making a promise and then delivering on it. I was pleased to see that.

For Science Fiction, it had enough in it for me to like it, and it's definitely better than most of the SF I find out there, especially given the fact that it's a debut novel. It was great to see some of the things I did in here.

Recommended Age: 16+
Profanity: A moderate amount of all sorts
Violence:Quite a few deaths, but most of the details are glossed-over
Sex: Numerous references of alien and human sex and some mild discussion

Your link:  A Darkling Sea


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