Ion Curtain by Anya Ow
£8.99, paperback, Rebellion Publishing
Reviewed by Nadya Mercik
A fast-paced story which brings the vibes of Star Trek and Expanse and a good spy movie, Ion Curtain reads fast and is filled with action. It might not be very innovative in terms of ideas, but it utilises the familiar tropes well and builds a bright world. I read it with great pleasure – a good old adventure you are happy to jump on together with the characters.
When corsairs follow a distress beacon, they find a blown-up VMF spaceship, The Farthest Shore, of the galactic Russian Federation. Everyone on the team knows that it is never a good idea to rob VMF – you can end up dead. But the salvage can be worth good money, so the corsairs’ captain – Solitaire Yeung – decides to take his chances. After all, the nearest Gate for interstellar travel is located in a couple days ride, so there is nothing to worry about.
If only. Halfway through the dead ship, Solitaire is pinged by a VMF captain, one Victor Kulagin, who orders the corsairs to leave the ship empty-handed and present themselves to the Russians. By some miracle, Russians have arrived ahead of time, without being noticed. Even if Yeung would be happy to comply, there is a problem. The corsairs have reached a strange room with some device, it has packed itself in a pod, and the ship has sealed off the way they have come by. The only way they can get out before they run out of air is to take the pod and bring it out. But the Russians would hardly see it as a sign of compliance. Solitaire realises that the only way they can actually escape VMF alive is to snatch away the thing in the pod, try to sell it on the black market and with the money hide. They manage the feat, but this is only the beginning of the story.
While captain Kulagin is exploring The Farthest Shore, his own vessel is attacked by… none other than a third VMF ship, which has clearly gone rogue. It turns out that some of the VMF cruisers have received special ASI cores in the past. They were created by scanning Admirals’ brains onto the AIs and unfortunately turned against the Federation. Admiral Kasparov’s daughter has died in that attack on The Farthest Shore, and now he sends his assistant, whom he suspects to be an elite agent of the UN, to find out more about his daughter’s demise.
There is little point in trying to retell more of the plot, because it is clearly designed to be experienced on the go. Let me just say that there is enough of spy tricks, fights, chases, explosions, coalitions and betrayals to keep you on the edge of your seat and make you turn the pages.
I was also pleasantly surprised how much effort went into portraying the Russian culture and reality. Not for a moment it felt like an agglomeration of typical elements and overused tropes. On the contrary it felt rather vibrant and real. I also enjoyed the re-interpretation of the Iron Curtain era in the futuristic setting. There were opportunities to go more in depth with it, but even as it is the confrontation is not black and white only. There is a clear opposition within the Federation, and it corresponds more to the current Russian reality rather than that of the 60s. It feels like the whole premise was to combine the ideas of the historical period with the vibes of the Expanse series and its confrontation between Earth, Mars and the Belt.
The story is clearly set to have a sequel. Quite a few plotlines remain unresolved, and the whole denouement looks more like a setting for the second book rather than a rounding-up. I do hope that the author will be writing it eventually – it can turn out to be another nice adventure. All in all, I believe this book is a steady 4 out of 5.