Summer’s End by John Van Stry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Review by Dann Todd: This is a 3.5-star review. Every time I talked myself into rounding it up to 4 stars, I found another reason to make it 3 stars.
I picked up Summer’s End because it is a finalist for this year’s Prometheus Award given to works of fiction that explore or incorporate libertarian themes. Prometheus Award winners are almost always pretty good. This is a worthy finalist.
Our protagonist is Dave “Mongoose” Walker. A former gang-banger who was literally scared straight and made it through enough college to get a certificate as a 5th-class engineer. In the opening pages, his brother tells him trouble is coming Dave’s way. His brother has acquired an engineering position for him on a tramp starship. Go now. Dave does.
The author does a great job of using Dave to bring us into a reality of interplanetary travel and settlement. Dave learns a bit about repairing/maintaining various parts of the ship. But we are spared the description of weeks of travel between destinations. This keeps the story/action moving and interesting.
Dave has all sorts of unusual challenges tossed his way. His biological mother’s new-ish husband wants him dead for political reasons. Dave ends up being taken by pirates/buccaneers (there apparently is a useful difference). He just happens to have a skill that he can use to negotiate for his release.
This leads to one major criticism of the book. Coincidence. While every book has to have a specific set of narrative circumstances occur for the book to make sense, it begins to strain credulity when, later in the book, so many of Dave’s issues are either caused by and/or resolved by people that were tangentially introduced earlier in the book. And in most cases, those people all know each other in some capacity or another independent of their relationship with Dave. The world is a small place, but it ain’t that small. Also, there are more than a few occasions where a character that is of interest to Dave for one reason just happens to have the skill set needed to solve an unrelated problem that Dave is dealing with.
A second criticism is basic spelling, grammar, and wordsmithery. A common complaint that I hear about books published by Baen is that there isn’t any clear indication of editorial input. The spelling and grammar errors were just enough to tip my inner editor. There were a few instances where I found the phrasing of a sentence or a paragraph
needed to require required* re-reading a few times to determine what the author was intending to say.
A third criticism is how the author treats a sizeable number of female characters. They are “hot”. Hot as in “Hot babe sittin’ beside me in my ‘Cuda.” At least one other review notes that female characters are “frustratingly” undeveloped. With the exception of Dave and one or maybe two other main characters, all of the other characters are undeveloped.
Take away (or diminish) two of those criticisms and this becomes a solid 4-star review (maybe 4.5) as the author does a very good job of incorporating a lot of real-world social structures and issues. He dials them up a bit and projects current trends to create a believable future where people are leaving Earth to avoid overregulation. He also points out that leaving Earth is not a panacea; some new polities develop some pretty horrendous beliefs and corporations really aren’t to be trusted.
The slow burn in the book is about social structures and trust. Dave succeeds because he demonstrates himself to be worthy of trust primarily because his life has shown him that trust is the only real value a person has. Gangs, families, business partners, corporations, neighborhoods, cities, and societies all rely on high levels of trust if they are going to continue to exist.
The characters and plot were compelling enough to keep me reading all the way to the end. The conclusion was satisfying. I’d like to read more about all of these characters in the future and see if the author can develop them more fully.
*Read the text that was striked out. Read the replacement. Which one reads more clearly. This book contained too many similar passages.