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Book cover art by Luis Royo.
Review © 1999 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Cyberstealth is a frustratingly flawed mixture of traditional space opera and gritty cyberpunk. Far in the future, humans and aliens known as the Akhaid live in the Collegium, a group of centrally governed systems and worlds not dissimilar to the kind of galactic empire found in hundreds of SF books of this type. The Collegium is currently at war with the Cardia, made up of worlds which seceded after a group of their own malcontents pulled off a brutal terrorist act.

Cargo is the nickname ("call sign") of a Collegium navy pilot who, along with his Akhaid partner Ghoster, has transferred to the barren remote world Vanity to train in a new model of batwinged stealth craft. Also present are the coy Stonewall, and Plato, a young woman who fills the necessary role of "tough babe who shares a sexual tension with our hero." (These guys can never have real girlfriends.) Cargo sees himself as a fighter pilot, pure and simple, and is openly distasteful when he learns that the batwings are intended for covert ops work (though why this should come as a surprise to him is anybody's guess). The plot thickens when it becomes clear there is a Cardia spy in their midst, stealing batwing technology. Could it be Stonewall, Plato, even Ghoster?

Lewitt's prose has attitude to burn, which, I suppose, is de rigeur for this kind of story. Trouble is it's not the sort of thing that appeals to my taste most times, and this is one of those times. Yet, despite her tendency to resort to clichés (naturally Vanity has a grungy spaceport bar where these top guns go to bond), Lewitt does do a good job of realizing her milieu for us. You can feel the cold winds and the grime on Vanity. Lewitt provides some very good character moments, and though the whole childhood orphan thing with Cargo is about as well-worn as they come, there are still some really nice scenes between Cargo and Plato (sound like a cute couple, don't they?), as well as Cargo and his mentor, Bishop Mirabeau, a diplomat who is trying to work a peace settlement with the Cardia. Lewitt's decision to make Cargo of Romany heritage is interesting, too, and would have been moreso had she explored it in greater depth.

Unfortunately, other parts of her tale are fairly confusing, and her plotting is flawed at crucial moments. You really have to get used to Lewitt's nonstop barrage of pilot slang before you have a clear understanding of how the human/Akhaid pilot teams work, and what she really means by the "Maze," the "Wall" and "dancing vac." (It's a cool concept, really.) Lewitt is sometimes inconsistent in small ways, too. In one sequence, only paragraphs after writing "No place to hide in vac," she writes, "There were too many ways to hide." Late in the story, Cargo and Ghoster are dispatched on a recon mission to scout out a secret Cardia base and swipe one of their batwings. Why his commanders need them to do this is unclear, since the ultimate objective is to wipe the base and its fighters out, so why not just do that? Not to give away any spoilers, but the way in which Lewitt has them infiltrate the base without drawing any suspicion whatsoever is patently unbelievable. True, the climactic scenes are stirring. But the mistakes Lewitt made getting there dulled their edges for me (coupled with the fact the traitor's identity is fairly obvious).

Poul Anderson or Christopher Hinz or David Weber could have knocked out a tale like this while getting a haircut and made it work much better with little to no effort. Shariann Lewitt is a pretty good writer, and this book is not completely without merits. But Cyberstealth's flaws outmaneuver and finally shoot down its successes. Followed by Dancing Vac.