In Jason M. Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, it's the eve of the 24th century, and humanity has been utterly devastated by a plague as mysterious as it is deadly. “SUBS” is a disease for which there is no cure—it is in the very air and earth, a contaminant that seeps into human cells, reducing the infected host into a crazed, violent monster. The only safe quarter from Subs lies in the South Pacific Ocean, in a remote outpost called Darwin, Australia. Just a few short decades before the devastating outbreak, Darwin was the site of humanity’s first contact with an extraterrestrial race, the “Builders,” who built a space elevator thousands of kilometers above Darwin and left before explaining its purpose. The only thing that the scraggly remains of the human race knows is that the elevator emits an aura that negates the SUBS infection. Within the seven-mile radius of the elevator on Earth, humankind is safe—but they can never leave the aura (or, rather, they can’t leave without protective environmental suits that carry uninfected air).

Skyler Luiken, however, is special. He and his crew of scavengers are immune to SUBS and run missions for hire, leaving the safety of the Aura in order to retrieve goods from the wasteland beyond Darwin. When Skyler is approached with a high-risk job that pays exceptionally well—a sensitive, top-secret mission from the most powerful man in the world—he agrees without hesitation. You see, not all is well in Darwin, and the miraculous space elevator is starting to falter—by extension, the protective aura shielding non-immune humans is faltering, too. Skyler’s mission, and the subsequent discoveries made by research doctor Tania Parma based on the data recovered by Skyler’s salvage runs, will change everything humanity knows about SUBS, the Builders and the future.

The Darwin Elevator is the first book in Hough’s Dire Earth Cycle trilogy, and proves to be an action-packed, post-apocalyptic space fable (with zombies). How could anyone resist that? With a strikingly visual premise—a mysterious space elevator extending its alien spindle into low Earth orbit—The Darwin Elevator scores high points in dramatic flair. The elevator lies at the heart of the mystery of Darwin and humanity’s demise, a constant reminder of the alien race that came, gifted and destroyed (with SUBS following the gift of the elevator, no one has any delusions that the extraterrestrial Builders weren’t behind both events).

As with any post-apocalyptic novel, a large part of the fun is seeing humanity’s stratification following catastrophe, and Hough does a fine job of showing the vertical divide between the haves and have-nots. The poor congregate at the base of the elevator, living in shantys and squalor; meanwhile the rich live in the isolated comfort of interconnected space stations in low Earth orbit. Surprisingly, the actual subs/zombie angle isn’t played up as much as you might expect—sure, there are scenes with Skyler and his crew staving off a horde of violent subhumans outside of the Aura, but the book is largely focused on secrets and espionage, the threat of mutiny and human drama. Which is pretty cool, really.

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Also on the positive side of things, The Darwin Elevator is slightly reminiscent of Firefly, what with subs that are essentially reavers, and the bucket-of-bolts ship run by a reluctant captain with a heart of gold. Skyler totally has the Mal/browncoat kind of feel, and I love that his Number 2 is a physically intimidating woman named Sam (with whom Skyler has a completely platonic relationship, ala Firefly’s Zoe). Of course, familiarity also breeds unfair comparisons—while the characters in The Darwin Elevator fit familiar archetypes, there’s little in the way of actual development. None of the characters display any emotional depth beyond their trope-laden labels (e.g. the reluctant hero, the sexy scientist, the badass warrior with an attitude problem, the power hungry rabble rouser with predictable sexual-deviant/abusive tendencies).

Ultimately, though? The Darwin Elevator is a fun ride—and one I’d recommend taking a trip on, if you’re looking for fast-paced, action-packed reading this holiday season. And the best news? Books 2 (The Exodus Towers) and 3 (The Plague Forge) are already out, thanks to the Dire Earth Cycle’s rapid-fire publication.

In Book Smugglerish, 6 space zombies out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.