I’d be lying if I said that Jason M. Hough hit the ground running with his debut novel. Because he didn’t.
First, he jumped out of the freaking plane, then he hit the ground running.
Darwin, Australia. Humanity’s last beacon of hope and the last remaining human city on Earth. An alien plague has conquered the world, turning the majority of the population into mindless savages. Those who remain have flocked to Darwin, site of the only thing keeping the plague at bay: a space elevator constructed by the same architects of this apocalypse—an alien race known only as the Builders.
Then the Elevator begins to malfunction.
Enter Skyler Luiken. One of the very few with an immunity to the plague, Skyler is captain of a ship that makes scavenging runs outside the Elevator’s protective aura—with a crew completely comprised of fellow “immunes.” When the Elevator starts malfunctioning, Skyler is brought in to help solve the mystery of failing alien tech…
…and to save humanity, if he can.
One of the most attractive things about The Darwin Elevator was the conceit. Sure, I’ve read apocalypse novels, and I’ve read alien novels, and I’ve read alien apocalypse novels, but there was nothing quite like this. The aliens kick off the apocalypse—but give humanity one safe harbor—and then up and LEAVE? Weird.
Now, the plague that turns humanity into savage killing machines? Not the most original thing in the world—it screams Reavers and Firefly and Serenity at me. But it’s a nice homage, and is a tried and true story element that has worked in the past and that works again here.
There’s a notion that many debut authors don’t grasp right away, and it’s the idea of making the author’s presence as invisible as possible. It’s the difference between telling the reader what’s happening and showing what’s happening. With a new story and a new world, some authors are tempted to give us the history of the world with a prologue or something similar at the outset of the novel. But, see, here’s the thing: a prologue in fiction? Backstory. It can be plopped down almost anywhere in the midst of the novel—preferably somewhere that makes sense, of course, but it needn’t (and usually shouldn’t) be at the very beginning of the novel.
And I am very happy to report that Hough has learned this lesson, and learned it well.
Throughout the novel, we get little explanations, stories, and flashbacks which help bring the reader up to speed on the history of Hough’s world. None of these instances are too much or too long. On top of that, they’re very well spaced, coming at appropriate moments over the course of novel, keeping the reader’s attention while at the same time feeding their sense of curiosity.
Very human characters…mostly
Another of The Darwin Elevator‘s strongest aspects lies in Hough’s character work. Our primary protagonists, Skyler Luiken and Dr. Tania Sharma, are full of depth and human emotion, especially Skyler. He goes from being the tentative captain to being forced to trust his instincts and go balls-to-the-wall for those he cares about. Tania gets a similar treatment, but not quite as thorough (which was a tiny disappointment, but here’s looking forward to book two).
There is a downside to this amount of character development, however. When there are those who have obviously been grown to be very human characters, any recurring characters who don’t have as much development stick out. And stick out, they do. Of Skyler’s crew, about half have been decently developed while the other half remain relatively two-dimensional. Considering that not all of the crew makes it through to the end of the novel, the lack of a more thorough character development means the fatalities don’t hit the reader as hard as they might.
Overall, though, Hough’s character work is very solid. This is further exemplified by his story’s antagonists. The Darwin Elevator is interesting in the idea that there isn’t really one entity functioning as the primary force working against our heroes. There’s no evil Empire, no Alliance striving to force civilization upon people, no single dictator. Instead, Hough has split up various functions of an antagonist among a few different characters. Once you’ve been introduced to the characters, it’s not difficult to figure out, but it’s a trick that works exceptionally well. There are the characters out to further their own ambition, those out to thwart everyone else, etc.
Not to mention the mastermind behind the entire story.
Yep, it’s there. And handled quite deftly. I saw the twist coming, but was still pleasantly surprised at the details.
All told, very good work for a debuting author.
Why should you read this book?
The Darwin Elevator is a fantastically strong first novel. Hough handles most of the novel with the precision of an author with a few books under his belt. If you’re not a big fan of space opera or hard sci-fi but are looking for that sci-fi fix, I highly recommend you give this book a try. If you’re a fan of fantasy, you’ll get a kick out of this book, too. Through a combination of strong characters, an intriguing premise, and a heaping dose of tension, Jason Hough has crafted a captivating story that doesn’t just have you following it into hell to finish—you’re bloody well sprinting.
Garrett received a review copy of this book courtesy of TLC Book Tours.