TEN LOW by Stark Holborn
Titan Books p/b £8.99
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
They were the first generation of human star-children born following the exodus from Earth. Their destinies were crossed by the political division between the First Accord of Nations and the people of the Free Limits. The subsequent conflict is now over, and the First Accord is in control, manipulating events as best they can; but out at the edge of The Void, the terraforming of a string of moons has not fully worked, society is at best conflicted as people at the margins cling to what little there is from which they can make a living.
Ten Low is a former medic in the military, an ex-convict haunted by the destruction of war scrabbling around to make a sort of living in the Barrens of the desert moon, Factus. Her medical skills have given her friends, and her knowledge of the land and its perils preserve her. She has made a commitment to protect life.
Suddenly, she witnesses a spacecraft crash in the desert, and she goes to see if there are any survivors. Inside there is a critically wounded man cradling what appears to be a small child. The man dies, but she manages to save the child. Only the child is not what she appears to be.
Holborn has crafted an elegant tale about abandoned people struggling in a half-ruined environment trying to make sense of themselves and their lives. Holborn is the creator of the `Nunslinger’ series of Western fantasies. She draws heavily on that background in this book. The social parallels between the American West and this frontier are well-stated in a beautiful, graphically presented tale. There is nothing far-fetched about it, allowing the reader to be grabbed from the start and driven at speed through the tale. Nobody in it is a nice person, and most of their personal luggage is very ugly.
The child survivor of the crashed spacecraft is Captain-General Gabriella Ortiz, former commander of the Western Air Fleet of the Accorded Nations. Unknown to both her and Ten Low, the crash was a botched attempt to kill off a human sub-species deliberately created from small children by the First Accord to prosecute the war against the Free Limits with every brutality. Naively, Ten Low feels she has to get the General back to her own people, a duty for which she hopes to be rewarded.
Of course, the best-laid plans go awry very quickly and in no time, the couple finds themselves as wanted criminals pursued by just about everyone due to the huge financial rewards on offer for their capture. Fortunately, life on this frontier is highly transactional; the many bounty hunters work against each other, both potential victims have deep resources to draw on and the environment they are in has its own dangers.
Particularly feared are The Seekers, an outwardly human band of body-part collectors who use the human population of The Barrens as a crop of spares for humanity on other worlds. Their role is deliberately cast as a source of terror; only, in reality, they are part of something else. The Void is deep space, black matter, impenetrable to humans, but it possesses alien sentience that Ten Low is very aware of, although she cannot define it.
This is a rich tale, an exciting story, told with admirable ease. There is a lot of cruelty in it, but that is sadly human nature. It is exceptionally good value as the reader will remain glued to it.