By Mike Glyer: Joy was supposed to wake from cryosleep and take her place as a biologist among 30,000 settlers coming to make a new world beautiful. Instead, she’s rousted half-alive on a different, inhospitable planet – Cato – where a previous colony ship arrived a long time ago but the good start its settlers made has gone bad. Why is Joy’s ship there?
Commander Cassimer knows why he and his Primaterre strike team have landed on Cato — to recover yet another ship known to have reached the planet under suspicious circumstances. He is a methodical, traditional, superstitious officer but on this storm-lashed, ruined world Cassimer not only risks failure, he must keep from being overwhelmed by the stressful memories of the heroics that have gained him fame.
It is through Joy and Cassimer’s eyes we experience S.A. Tholin’s Iron Truth, a finalist of the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition. If there was ever a case of the cream rising to the top this book is one.
What is Primaterre? A conquering empire? A cult? The best chance for humanity? Joy’s colony ship left Earth a hundred years before the present day, during the golden age of space exploration when humans were escaping the overpopulated and depleted Solar System to open and terraform other worlds. But that ended when miners on a remote colony hit a seam of corruption in Xanthe’s alien soil, which possesses every mind it touches and sets people on murder sprees. In the spreading panic the Primaterre Protectorate seized control. The agencies of this possession are called demons, but are they supernatural or natural, a spiritual obsession, a psychological condition, or a medical threat?
Joy connects with Cassimer’s team. Overcoming the disappointment that it’s not her ship they’ve come for, she works with Cassimer hoping that what he’s doing may still lead to the rescue of her brother and others she believes are still in cryo chambers aboard the intact section of the old wreck. Although Joy and Cassimer are the primary points of view into the story, as the adventures progress the reader is given solid reasons to wonder if they are reliable or unreliable narrators. Are they in danger from this demonic threat or already vessels of compromise?
Primaterrans are trained to maintain their sanity by relentlessly practicing being in the present, a mental discipline that also helps pace this richly detailed story. What situation are the characters in right now? Working for their immediate survival? In a firefight? Mission planning? Moving to the next place? Information is brought into focus as team members need it. And everything needs to be explained to newcomer Joy, whose questions help reveal author Tholin’s impressive worldbuilding without pace-crippling info dumps.
This is a powerful adventure braided together from elements of military sf, horror, romance, and space opera.
Giving the military sf fans their due, components of the battlefield armor worn by Cassimer and his team are described in prep, in use, when impaired by damage, and assessed for repair. Combat medical care also shows the author’s creative thinking. Warfare always has that grinding side of patch-‘em-up and send ‘em back into battle. Primaterrans have a very well-quantified understanding of how much recovery treatments are likely to produce, and those results happen quickly, whether or not soldiers’ emotions can keep up with the pace of fighting.
How Primaterre’s soldiers are equipped and cared for also opens a window onto the culture’s economic system, based on what has a soldier done in battle to earn merits. You need merits to upgrade your equipment, or to get advanced medical treatments. It’s a system built on the long-known fact that “it’s amazing what a soldier will do for a scrap of ribbon,” as I heard a Canadian vet once say.
While Cassimer is the epitome of the Primaterre culture, it’s very different than the one that sent out Joy’s colony ship, let alone the murderous depths Cato’s human survivors have descended to. Iron Truth gradually reveals the value systems of these several cultures, and then follows the exposed roots to discover their origins.
Their contrasting origins barely get in the way of Joy and Cassimer’s mutual attraction. At a certain point in the story it must decided whether that will mature into a romance or not. Almost like an eight-year-old I reacted “Oh no, the mushy part!” I should have had more faith in author Tholin, who writes those parts with the same aplomb as the dynamic action sequences. Scenes of every type are woven with character feelings and revelations.
The military sf aspects dominate the beginning of Iron Truth, however, like one of those fictional spaceships that flips over midflight and starts using its power to decelerate for the landing, the book’s horror elements take control over the last half. Although that distinction may matter more in literature than in history, because what is the difference between horror and a realistically-described combat environment , if any?
Military sf focuses on the tactical progress through a mission, the relationships in a unit, weaponry, handling fear, injury, wounds. There’s death and devastation, people can be afraid, can develop PTSD, can be hurt and killed. Iron Truth crosses the line to horror when on top of all that, physical harm to people is brought into complete focus and dwelt on, and their control over their bodies and minds – their agency – risks being lost to a malign force or intelligence.
Iron Truth views much that is gristly and gorey — for one example, take that particular species of vermin humans unintentionally brought with them and has made itself prolifically at home. It’s foul and unattractive, but no mystery. The story advances from sf to horror only when Cassimer’s team has peeled back enough layers of the mystery about their mission to realize the opposition is both bizarre and threatening the deeper levels of their minds. Things feel a bit claustrophobic but S. A. Tholin maintains a high level of suspense and energy as Iron Truth presses to the end.
Self-Published Science Fiction Competition judges assign scores on a ten-point scale. What that number means is something judges have to define for themselves. I personally decided that if a book was as good as Ancillary Justice I would give it a 10. Not because that’s a perfect book, just that I enjoyed it so much more than most other books I’ve read in the past 5 years. So that’s how highly I think of Iron Truth, giving it a score of 9.5 – it’s by far the best SPSFC entry I’ve read so far.
This author seems destined for big things. Iron Truth is an ambitious and audacious epic that comes in at 244,000 words, far longer than any other book I read for the SPSFC.
S.A. Tholin makes particularly effective use of the contrast in humanity that has occurred between the time Joy enters cryosleep on Mars 117 years ago and the dehumanizing megaviolent present. She meets Cassimer, part of a special-ops team of super soldiers so tricked up with cybernetics and drugs that they can endure almost any physical trauma and continue fighting. He can’t believe there’s a human out there with any innocent optimism left in them — seeing in her things he thought were lost forever.
The names, concepts and worldbuilding in this novel are all fantastic. An extremely formidable battlesuit that turns a soldier into a one-person army is called an Ereshkigal, named after the Sumerian goddess of the land of the dead. The Primaterre are the primary human civilization, worshiping a concept of Purity to keep their minds from falling to a creeping cosmic horror.
With only 15 reviews on Goodreads, Iron Truth is still in the “I read this before it was big” stage. I recommend it to File 770’s readers who aren’t afraid of a super chonky epic. You’ll find military SF, horror and romance along with a planet that’s the worst place for a generation ship to accidentally land.
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