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stealing Light by Gary GibsonThree and a half stars
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As the second decade of the 21st century loomed, a distressing fact became evident — at least in the US — to fans of science fiction. It appeared that our favorite genre was withering away and dying, and may well even be the victim of intentional eradication on the part of a publishing industry addicted to paranormal chick-lit like a basehead high on black rock. But over in the UK, where the New Space Opera was launched, SF still has both feet firmly in the future.

None of Gary Gibson's work is, as of this writing, available from an American publisher. But for fans of his countrymen Alastair Reynolds and Pete Hamilton, tracking him down (through the adventurous expedient of ordering from Amazon UK) is totally worth it. The fellow who's probably tired of being thought of as "not that Gibson" has concocted the Shoal Sequence, an epic space opera trilogy that is inventive, suspenseful, and that races along at Warp Factor Five in its best moments. Its first volume, Stealing Light, will plaster a smile on the pasty faces of all who have been aching for a grand and gripping interstellar adventure.

In the 26th century, the ichthyic (that means fishlike, for those of you not up on your Lovecraft) alien race known as the Shoal control all inhabited space via their monopoly on faster-than-light travel. In exchange for access to this technology (which humanity has epically failed to reproduce or even reverse-engineer), the Shoal have permitted us to colonize an area of the galaxy a few hundred light years in diameter. This started out as a handy way for humanity's governing body, the Consortium, to send its more irritating black sheep — in particular the fanatically religious Uchidans, and the Freeholders, a gaggle of clannish and psychotically warlike libertarian extremists — off to some distant corner of the galactic pasture. The trouble is, the Shoal have now forced them to occupy the same pathetic little planet, and the resulting war could threaten all Consortium space.

The Freeholders are on the verge of losing this war, and are wracked with internal political violence to boot. One renegade senator grasps at a final straw. In a distant system the Freehold has planned to colonize, a secret has been discovered deep beneath the icy crust of a remote moon. It's a discovery that could possibly put humanity — or the Freeholders, anyway — on an even technological playing field with the Shoal. To bring this discovery home, they conscript Lucas Corso, a Freehold historian whose specialty is alien programming languages, and Dakota Merrick, a pilot with a pressing need to get the hell as far from the solar system as she can. Dakota is a loathed machine-head, whose brain implants allow her a synaptic connection to her ship and most computers. Machine-heads played a role in a nasty incident that earned them the enmity, to put it mildly, of all Freeholders. But for this job, only Dakota will do. However, are the Shoal as in the dark about this secret mission as the Freeholders want to believe? And do they have their own secrets regarding their technological superiority they don't want known? Is there, maybe, a very good reason they don't just let us share in their knowledge?

Gary Gibson doesn't paint on as absurdly sprawling a canvas as, say, Hamilton. But his vision is admirably vast. He makes the complexities of his universe and its varying races and politics impressively clear. And the book's 600-page length is offset by a fine sense of pacing. We're never forced to slog through dull and irrelevant narrative tangents, and for readers who want plenty of action, the climactic scenes deliver ample explosive spectacle. Gibson conveys in-depth backstory without infodumping, and while some of his characters are a little on the arch side (the Freeholder senator Arbenz is a quintessential raving madman), his protagonists are sympathetic and convincing. I enjoyed the little touches that lent color to the story's future, such as Dakota's interactions with her ship, which even helps her while away the lonely hours in deep space by having sex with her.

There is a reveal that I do not wish to spoil, that I don't think is exactly the most logically watertight thing Gibson could have devised. But it does set the stage for ample excitement to come. If the lack of fresh and invigorating large-scale SF in your life has been getting you down, Stealing Light is a pure pageturner that will brighten your day.

Followed by Nova War.