The Caphenon

The Caphenon - Fletcher DeLancey Between the near perfect "Past Imperfect" series and "Without a Front" , I was rather skeptical the author could squeeze another compelling tale out of that universe that we all haven't read before. I am kinda wary of re-writes and edits for publication--sometimes they're marginally better, sometimes they turn out worse as when short stories or novellas get stretched out, but this is just so surprisingly...perfect.

Alsea is a fertile planet with a thriving but non-spacefaring civilization who like us, gaze upon the stars and wonder if aliens exist. They get the surprise and shock of their lives when their first close encounter ever is when two alien ships duke it out over their skies. Fortunately, the right one is obliterated, and the surviving aliens appear to be their saviors. But the joy is short-lived, as the Alseans discover that they are a highly coveted prize in an interstellar political tug-of-war. And if the wrong guys win, its curtains for life as it is on Alsea.

This book can stand proud beside the most popular mainstream sci-fi works in terms of the science part of the fiction. The rich, complex world of Alsea and the religious, social and political norms of its inhabitants are well delineated. The details on the physics of space travel, weapons, battle strategies and staging, political alliances--elements so essential to sci-fi world-building--were all there but not dumped on the reader in a way that will make one fall asleep. What makes it a better read than the typical sci-fi thriller is its accessibility. The expositions are sprinkled in well-timed doses and worded so as to engage rather than bury the reader in technobabble. But what really makes it appeal to us ordinary readers is that underneath the sci-fi exterior lies a beautiful and very powerful story of love and friendship amid a gripping tale of survival of apocalyptic proportions.

Plot-wise, after the initial excitement and mini-battle, things kind of simmer down a bit, as the book takes some time with the world-building and character intros. I was initally thrown for a loop as some major characters were transplanted from the old series but with somewhat similar names but different circumstances, so this was also a good time to get reacquainted with them and figure out their relationship dynamics in this book. The lack of action and conflict during this portion (and some of the more techy stuff) may discourage some readers, but stick with it, the second half is such a gripping read you won't want to put down the book till the end.

Aside from the inter-species conflicts, the book delves into a number of complex personal, moral, ethical and spiritual conflicts experienced by the main characters while carrying out their respective duties, and whether the ends ever justify the means. These philosophical and personal struggles are what elevate the book far above the usual lesfic or sci-fi fare. Another noteworthy aspect is the author's depiction of the two women protagonists--Type-A leaders, brilliant, headstrong, honorable--torn between loyalty, friendship and their inner moral compass, and their impossibly complicated relationship. ;)

Am I the only one who wished these two got together instead? I can't remember a book with two unforgettable protagonists, and the one time it happens, they're not meant for each other! :( Teary Sad Face But the best thing about the book is how incredibly entertaining the very complex story is--truly a hallmark of a great storyteller.

My only quibble (and it's a pretty lame one, at that) is with the cover. The lighting (shading) on the Caphenon is off, making it look too shiny and toy-like, rendering the whole scene more cartoonish that it should be.