The first installment of Gross’ (Bard’s Exile, 2016, etc.) sci-fi series follows a woman as she aims to save a population of a planet headed for fiery annihilation.
Lulu emphatically believes in the message of peace and hope that she receives from the doyen—a prophet named Sen on the planet Dalia. As the face of the ruling Sanctuary, the doyen usually promises Dalia’s people that the neighboring planet Laima won’t abandon them; its shadow protects their world from a fire cyclone. Sen’s latest speech, however, is surprisingly grim in tone: he claims that Laima’s orbit will imminently shift, ensuring Dalia’s destruction. When one of his massive guards, known as “crawlers,” reacts to this by apparently attempting to kill him, Lulu intervenes. Consequently, she and Sen wind up being judged by the Wards, the women who rule the planet and control the doyen. Coming to Lulu’s aid is her father, Mikal, a former Sanctuary assassin who bravely confronts the genetically engineered crawlers. After Lulu and Sen escape, they uncover quite a few secrets, including a couple of major ones that Mikal has been keeping. As it happens, Lulu is a significant figure among the Dalians, and she has previously unknown capabilities, such as the power to light a beacon to call for aid. Those who respond to that beacon, however, may not be so accommodating. Lulu, Mikal, and others commandeer a ship to travel to another planet, where they make allies, face hostility, and learn a good deal about Dalia.
Gross offers an initially simple story that becomes increasing dense. Lulu is the first focus, and only after she and Sen uncover more information about themselves are other major characters (and plotlines) introduced. Several characters change their alliances along the way—or at least appear to do so. For example, Mikal, to save his daughter, makes a deal with the Wards to assassinate Sen, who’s quickly becoming Lulu’s friend. In the same vein, all the major Dalian characters are forced to band together when they face opposition on a new planet. The theme of family is prevalent throughout, as well: Lulu and Mikal’s union seems unbreakable, despite occasionally being at odds, and Mikal is often paternal to others. In fact, Mikal is responsible for one of the book’s periodic moments of profundity: he tells a grieving character that if he dies as a result of not safeguarding himself, it’s tantamount to killing his loved one “all over again.” The story’s steady pace slows down considerably after the trek to the other world. Nevertheless, this action launches the series’ main arc, and Gross methodically builds upon a narrative that will continue in future books. There are still copious action scenes, though, replete with Mikal employing his cache of weapons and Lulu trying out her abilities. Tears may be shed for characters who don’t reach the end, but one death in particular will likely generate applause.
An interplanetary tale with stellar characters that will put readers on the hunt for the next entry.