In this sci-fi debut, two teenagers suspect something diabolical lies behind the mysteriously locked supply closet in their school’s subbasement.
Dex Carpenter knows he has a low social standing at Saint McIntyre’s Academy on the colonized planet Gamma Ceti. This is primarily due to Travis Bannon, the much-respected star athlete who’s bullied him for years. So Dex doesn’t have the confidence to strike up a conversation with beguiling Tabitha Tempest, who transferred from an Earth school not long ago. His first one-on-one encounter with Tabitha is happenstance: Dex gets sick and is late to Morning Mass, which he then decides to skip altogether. It turns out Tabitha has been missing Mass every day, and she convinces Dex to make it a daily routine as well. The two bond and soon develop romantic feelings. But Tabitha believes the academy has secrets, starting with the principal having off-world tech, which the colony’s Pleiades Catholic society expressly forbids. She further claims that students return from Mass in some kind of trance lasting a couple of hours. Dex notices this, too, and Tabitha suggests Saint McIntyre’s is up to something sinister, like brainwashing. Assuming that the Masses have compromised students for years (and that adult colonists are brainwashed former pupils), Tabitha and Dex need hard evidence to take to Federal agents at the colonial outpost. They set their sights on the academy’s subbasement supply closet, which has a crypto-circuit lock that the principal’s special key likely opens. What the two find inside that room is much worse—and more dangerous—than they anticipated.
West’s multi-genre novel successfully blends sci-fi, mystery, and teen drama. For example, the tech, though minimal, is apparent. Tabitha’s Earth device, a Digit, “can do pretty much anything,” such as scanning for other tech in the school. The mystery, meanwhile, is sound: Tabitha and Dex’s eventual discovery in the subbasement leads to more questions than answers, which only deepens the conspiracy. But the author’s most laudable achievement is the deconstruction of teen-drama clichés, most notably involving the characters. The socially awkward protagonist, for one, earns sympathy as a bully’s victim. But Tabitha’s lament of drawing unwanted attention based solely on her looks is critical of most boys, including Dex, who initially pines for her for the same reason. And in a short but effective scene, Travis’ father, Nick, physically assaults his son, signaling lifelong abuse that is ostensibly the genesis of the student’s bullying. West’s simplified narrative concentrates on Tabitha and Dex, with much of the story set at Saint McIntyre’s and few appearances from adults. This makes the expedited romance convincing. There’s plenty of shared time for Tabitha to admire Dex’s confidence and later have her doubts when that assurance seemingly dissipates. The prose is often playful, as in this sci-fi-inspired interaction: “Soon a potent charge rose between them, like the rumble of booster engines priming for blast-off.” Unquestionable peril, unveiled villains, and a chase sequence constitute the final act, and though the book has a definite and memorable ending, there’s series potential here.
Engrossing, imperfect characters in a riveting intergalactic tale.