Tammy Salyer asked me to read her space opera, "Contract of Defiance". It's about two groups of criminals that try to break into a high security government facility for diametrically opposed goals. I will examine Plot, Character, and Polish before assigning a grade.
What we have here is a conspiracy by two groups of criminals to sneak into this giant fortress operated by an oppressive government in order to rescue friends or steal weapons for a payoff. It's very Star Wars-ish, if the attempt was only undertaken by five of Han Solo's split personalities and he was working with/against Jaba the Hut's goons, The Empire was nothing but faceless mooks, and the Jedi didn't exist. Okay, revise that; it's nothing like Star Wars.
There's a In Media Res starting things off which is a great hook. It moves quickly into action and the backstory is revealed piece by piece as our protagonist, Aly Erickson, tries to get a handle on her situation.
Because she is the protagonist, one could say that the plot is her attempt to reunite with her brother, David, whom she was separated from during the In Media Res heist. Her story unfolds as she tries to make this happen. She believes he's being held captive at The Fortress that her crew was going to break into anyway but there's a problem. Her crew was going to snatch a weapon and her boss doesn't like changing his plans. She falls in with a new crew that has a similar goal but they don't like her because she's a darker shade of grey, and she doesn't feel comfortable with them for a great many reasons, and one of them is being a darker shade of grey, but she wants to be a lighter shade. This is the book's second source of conflict.
Everyone in this story is grey (except for Rajack and most of his crew-they're straight up black). This cast contains only criminals of some kind and most of them have a Dark and Troubled Past explaining why they're a criminal and it always involves the Admin. If you think about it, they can sound silly.
-"I hate the Admin because I was a soldier and they told me to kill people who committed crimes."
-"I hate the Admin because they didn't maintain a dry mine and it eventually collapsed on my family, who was squatting in it."
-"I hate the Admin because I didn't want to use their funding towards what they wanted me to use it for so they threatened to take it away."
-"I hate the Admin because a virus wiped out a city and rumors say that it was created in the Fortress, transported to the city, and then maybe deliberately released."
This last one is the most egregious because stealing a weapon from the Fortress and using it on a populated city (for ransom money) is precisely Rajack's plan and what Aly was working towards in the In Media Res.
No one from the Admin ever appears and the only named character from the Admin is a corrupt official. Thus, we never see the other side of this story. What keeps this balanced and away from the territories of Designated Villain and Off-Screen Villainy, is that the criminal status of the main cast is regularly lampshaded.
-Hardly a chapter goes by where Aly does not mention or think about how the equipment in Agate Beach must be stolen. Thus, a target for law enforcement. She also reflects on her own past as a deserter and weapon smuggler who has no qualms with killing people if necessary.
-This quote here is illuminating.
(Most of the non-cit outposts I’ve been to in my travels have been destitute sties filled with pirates, degenerates, and criminals—hiding places for the cutthroat and brutal.")
Why do soldiers so often kill people in the outskirts? If everyone in the community is a brutal criminal then the soldiers cannot play nice. Let's imagine that this story takes place during the time when Aly was still an Admin soldier. She was tracking down, in her own words, "pirates, degenerates and criminals". She presumed that Vitruzzi's crew were "smugglers that spill blood out of convenience" because as both a soldier and deserter, that is what she is most used to seeing. That is all she finds in Hell's Gate. The lack of such people in Agate Beach baffles her. This means that the Admin, at worst, is a Knight Templar organization.
-This passage here is a full on lampshading of this grey and grey morality as well as a popping of Aly's justification for thinking the Admin is worse than herself and therefore deserves to be the victim of her crimes.
(Strahan leans back in his chair, his lips twisted into a sarcastic grin. "That’s just beautiful, Erikson. You work for a man who wiped out a squad of thirty soldiers to escape from Keum Libre, a prison he no doubt deserved to be in, and help him steal a bomb that could potentially wipe out the population of a planet. And you make out that it’s the Admin’s fault? That’s rich.") Page 70.
In other words, when you are a thief and a murderer and you work for a thief and a murderer who wants the ability to depopulate a planet, you have no moral high ground at all. Also, this comes from Strahan, who is a former soldier similar to Aly, although he was more pilot than infantry.
-When pressed to answer why she thinks the Admin would want to destroy Agate Beach, instead of just arresting the criminals inside it, Aly can only say "I don't know. Because it's what they do". Either she doesn't want to admit that the Admin is justified in tracking down criminals (albeit in a unnecessarily harsh and severe manner) or she doesn't want to admit that she thinks the Admin are Always Chaotic Evil because that would be silly if spoken aloud. Aly likes ignoring facts that don't fit her complicated world view; a fact that she is aware of and also tries to ignore.
While reading this book I couldn't help but imagine what the tone would be like and what the opinion of the Admin would be if a soldier or citizen were the protagonist. Thus, we have a grey and grey and black morality, with Rajack being the black and Vitruzzi's crew being grey along with the Admin.
The ending is good. The book's conflict is resolved but the series' conflict can continue into another book. Only a skilled author can pull off something like this.
Aly Erickson, our protagonist, is fascinatingly complex. Laying out her personality, worldview, and the contradicting-yet-complementary elements could be its own blog post. For the sake of brevity, I will try to nutshell it. (Warning! Understanding the nutshell requires fluency in Tvtropes.) Aly is a Broken Bird due to Parental Abandonment and Shell Shocked Veteran who practices half-hearted Straw Nihilism because Hope Is Scary but Even Evil Has Standards and Blood Is Thicker Than Water.
Rajack is the Big Bad. He's like a rapid dog that is paradoxically able to think rationally. Perhaps a better description would be that he is a savagely intelligent dog that employs truly rapid dogs. No one hates the Admin more than this guy and yet he does not have a Dark and Troubled Past like our protagonists with which to justify said hatred, and he's also far eviler than anyone in the Admin.
Vitruzzi is the Big Good. If she's not the leader of Agate Beach or co-leader with Brady then she can certainly convince him to do things her way on a regular basis. She can be compared to an Apron Matron because she cares deeply about her crew's well being, keeping them safe and fed, but also doesn't take any crap from them or anyone. She's also an amazing strategist with Nerves of Steel.
The Admin has only one named character, T'kai, but he never shows up or speaks for himself. It's all second-hand and in-universe speculation about his actions and motives. There's also Vilbrandt, who claims to have been a big wig with the Admin, but no one trusts a word he says on any subject. In the end, the Admin is treated like this big monolithic bully. Since all of this comes from criminals, it's hardly an objective prospective.
No spelling or grammar errors.
This story is a first person narration from Aly and it's a mixed bag whether or not it works. The hook at the start of the story wouldn't be nearly as effective in third person, but there are other scenes that drag because of her internal narration. Some areas are too calmly narrated for someone in panic or anger but there are also some scenes that do a good job of simulating her losing consciousness and thus awareness of what's going on. Sometimes the narration sounds like she's musing to herself or talking herself through actions but other times it comes perilously close to breaking the fourth wall by explaining things to the readers.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Contract of Defiance" a B+
P.S. I'm going to do an interview with Miss. Salyer at her website http://tammysalyer.com/. Keep an eye out for it.
Click here for the next book review (which was a request): Spirit Tales: The Wheelwork
Click here for the previous book review (which was not a request): Sword Art Online: Aincrad 1