Peter David writes my very favorite Star Trek books. I discovered his work at some point in the ’90’s when I was still interested in attempting to read all the Star Trek novels related to The Next Generation. The lack of quality of most of the TNG ties-ins made it quite an effort, and then Peter David comes along. I don’t remember exactly which novel of his I read first, but I remember Imzadi being the point at which I decided to go from buying all ST books to buying Peter David ST books. He has a knack for writing in established worlds about familiar characters but with his own humor, dry wit and sense of adventure. His standalone ST series New Frontier is one of the most re-readable ST properties. It’s really an adventure story set in the world of the Federation. David works outside of the standard ST structure by creating a new ship and crew (with a few familiar faces – Commander Shelby from The Best of Both Worlds is the first officer) deposited in a volatile area of space with a brash, headstrong Captain. It’s not without its flaws, some of which have to do with the unfortunate way that most of the female characters end up in love with the Captain. The way David weaves humor and action is ultimately what engages the reader. Because these are ST properties, of course there are greater moral implications for the action and adventure, but the real meat of the stories are the sense of humor, occasional nods to other sci-fi and fantasy properties and plot twisting adventure.
Since David is mostly known for his work in other major genre properties like X-Men and Star Trek, my boyfriend and I were wondering if he had actually written any fiction in a world of his own making. It wasn’t a thought that caused either of us to interrupt our meals to search our phones to find out, so I didn’t think much more about it. Then a couple of weeks later, we were visiting the most fantastic bookstore in an old bus that has ever existed – Fifth Dimension Books. This converted bus has the most amazing collection of old and rare fantasy and science fiction. Browsing the rows we came upon this rather luridly covered and ridiculously titled book Darkness of the Light. And so our question which we had almost forgotten was answered and of course the book was purchased just to see what sort of world David would come up with freed from the yolk of servitude to an established universe.
That world is Earth, it’s no secret; now renamed the Damned World, as it has become the dumping ground for the universe’s most war-like and difficult races. The Universe’s Australia, you could say; a place for aliens to stick annoying species and be done with them. Humans – also called Morts – are all but extinct due to the various cycles of invading species, the first wave of which started before humans were even evolved from tree-dwellers. The third wave tipped the scales in the favor of the other races: 11 non-human races now war among themselves for resources in the ruins of our modern society. The main plot follows a human woman named Jepp who is freed from her enslavement to the leader of one of the lizard races when he is killed in a battle. She is immediately found by one of the Bottom Feeders – a satyr – who saves her from immediate enslavement to another lizard and takes her in. Jepp, the satyr Karsen, and his crew of outcasts from various races exist by scavenging corpses on battlegrounds. They’re the sort of rough but lovable group of misfits that’s a fairly familiar trope; the right kind of entry into this world with so many different species with which to familiarize oneself.
The narrative is split between our misfits and various other races going about power struggles either with others of their kind or with another of the 12 races. There are lizard people called Mandraques and Firedraques, two water-going races called the Markene and the Sirene, an underground-dwelling race called Trulls, and a race of one-eyed giants called the Ocular, who fight with a race of sensuous bloodsuckers called Piri. The names are meant to be familiar since the races were deposited on Earth over a span of centuries in small numbers at first. Humans over the years encountered these groups in various out of the way places around the globe and passed stories about these creatures which became the legends of vampires, lizard people, sirens, cyclops, etc. It’s not necessarily an original concept but it’s developed in an interesting way here in that all the races have the same experience of being outcast from their home realms and are subject to a race of mysterious and powerful overseers. The only time the races worked together was to subjugate humanity. As the various story lines develop we begin to see that humanity is, of course, more pivotal to the survival of all the inhabitants of the Damned World than any of them realized, and perhaps the survival of the other realms as well.
There’s the usual sense of humor and playful banter between the characters that would be expected from David, which is so necessary to lighten up a story set in the ruins of Earth where humans are nearly extinct. There’s certainly no shortage of adventure, and plot twists involving some pretty prominent characters dying were either bold or perhaps a way to kill off characters he realized had been written into a corner. I had trouble getting into the book at first as the initial chapters primarily serve to introduce all of these races on different parts of the planet with seemingly little to no connection between them. I also found one of the story lines – about the Ocular and the Piri – to be hampered by an unlikable and unsympathetic character – Nagel, the leader of the Ocular who essentially serves as the instigator of the main plot and sends our crew of misfits on a quest for the Macguffin. As the book goes on, I found myself most invested in the story line involving the water races, one of which is enslaving the other with a mind-clouding drug, and the story of Jepp. Though there is a lot of eye-rolling involved with Jepp and her relationship with Karsen. There’s an interesting story to be mined from a former sex slave finding her own agency and power in this world but David is not the one to write it.
World-building is not truly David’s strong suit as a writer. I couldn’t tell you whether there is a system of magic in this world, if everything is based on technology, if it’s some combination, or if that’s still to be revealed, and that is a real problem for any fantasy series. There’s the beginning of a narrative about the creative capacity of the human mind, but it comes a bit out of left field and doesn’t seem to truly fit with the rest of the world. The alien races could really have used some fresher perspective but there’s not much of that here. All told, this book truly is like the macaroni and cheese of fantasy stories. It doesn’t offer much that is new or substantive, but it’s tasty goodness nonetheless. Like so many of the ST books, the humor and action win me over and I got involved enough to keep going. The characters that I did end up liking were engaging enough for me to want to continue reading about their adventures. Perhaps my time and energy is better spent on more original or deeper fiction, but sometimes you just crave that gooey cheesy pasta deliciousness. And Peter David provides. The 2nd book in this trilogy is out, but the 3rd has yet to be released, so it remains to be seen whether any substance will be forthcoming over the series.