The Kassa Gambit

The Kassa Gambit

As the new year rolls around, I’ve been keeping my eyes out for the new crop of books that are set to be released. Already, there’s a handful that have caught my eye, including M.C. Planck’s debut novel The Kassa Gambit. Set in deep space, with inter-colony intrigue, a smuggling ship and a neat cover, it has all the hallmarks of a book that looks to be a fun read, and for the first two-thirds, it really is. The final third, however, demonstrates just how quickly a book can go from a fun and entertaining affair to one that fills me with the desire to throw the book across the room. It’s a shame, because this book looks as through it might have been good, rather than blatantly offensive.

Set in deep space following the ecological collapse of Earth, humanity has taken to the stars by way of nodes, transportation points that allow ships to travel the vast distances of space, and settle on a variety of colonial worlds. The crew of a smuggling ship, led by Prudence Falling, come across Kassa on a routine run, only to find that the planet’s population has been utterly devastated by an unknown attacker. Close behind her is Kyle Daspar, a political officer and double agent infiltrating the League, a political movement intent on dominating the planet Altair Prime. The two characters fall into one another’s company, and uncover something that is poised to upend the order that’s been established in space.

The overarching political elements to this story, the characters and overall universe start out great, and I was reminded a number of times of a favored novel, The Icarus Hunt, by Timothy Zahn more than once. Planck has set up a neat universe, with some good logic behind the people and mechanics of how things run. As the characters move forward, we see that not all is what it seems, and that their groundbreaking discovery has very different implications than they previously thought: it’s part of a political movement that’s designed to allow the League to gain an incredible amount of political power. Here, it’s a neat take on what’s generally a blunt instrument in science fiction, and there’s a nice blend of space opera and political commentary here.

However, around the 60% mark, the book loses steam – a lot of it. The characters break down considerably, and the political conflict that felt very nuanced, devolves into a bunch of caricatured villains and half-hearted action that moves along only by momentum. The characters just… drift and bicker to no end. Worse, however, is how Planck completely upends the two characters, absolutely ruining everything that came before it. In the final act, Prudence is threatened by a violent rape that leaves her utterly traumatized  The scene is so poorly thought out and out of place that it feels as though it doesn’t belong.

I don’t want to diminish the real horrors of sexual assault, and the presence of the actions aren’t what bothered me: it was that the scenes felt as though they were simply dropped in as a tool from a menu: threaten main female character with violation, and have the male character that she’s previously hated/disliked/attracted to inconsistently throughout the book sweep in to save the day and protect her dignity. The scene is so utterly by the numbers – a smelly, disgusting enemy guard advancing on the stripped naked (Yep) characters, before letting his guard down and being taken down.

There has been a lot of talk about this sort of thing in the geek lit community, from Seanan McGuire and Jim C. Hines in the literature realm to quite a bit in the video game industry. McGuire had a point recently that bothered me: a reader asked her when a main character of hers would be raped. Not if – when. The action seems to have become a tool through which a female protagonist can be almost casually brutalized and I was very bothered to see it present in this book. McGuire had this to say about it: Because it is a foregone conclusion, you see, that all women must be raped, especially when they have the gall to run around being protagonists all the damn time.  This sort of thing troubles me greatly, and while I don’t know what the author’s intentions are with the scene, whether or not it’s simply an escalation, but the male characters in the book are never threatened with similar trauma.

Beyond that, the action becomes a point where Falling moves from being a strong, confident character in charge of a space ship, to someone who realizes that all she really needs in life is a strong man to protect her from the bad things in the world, which runs completely contrary to everything that ran up before that. It was enough to make me slam the book shut when I finished, never to open it again. I don’t know what the intentions of the scene were, or if there was some noble intention behind it, but whatever the reason, it sent the book off the rails to such a degree that there is no return. It’s a shame, because the book had quite a bit of promise.

So, The Kassa Gambit turns from a rather fun read to one that’s downright offensive to read by the time you reach the end, and ultimately, while it contains a number of interesting kernels, they’re never followed up on or capitalized in any major way. It’s a shame, because the book was a promising one.

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23 thoughts on “The Kassa Gambit

    • If you read the first 2/3s of the book, and write your own ending, you’ll do okay.

      It’s also worth reading for a couple of points – a), as a what not to do sort of thing, but b), there’s actually some neat world building and setup that *should* have driven the plot forward at the end, rather than just falling like it did.

    • Yeah. Fortunately, it was a paced quickly, and it’s rather short, so I didn’t feel like I missed out on something greater (I’ve always got a bunch of books that I’m reading.)

  1. Gah. These sort of books are the worst. They lull you into thinking you’re getting into a quality story, only to pull the rug out from under you to reveal a stinking pit.

    • Maybe. Pulling the rug out from someone seems malicious to me. In this case, it just seems like the book needed an ending RIGHT NOW, and that was a quick (crappy) way to wrap it up.

  2. That is unfortunate. Manchess’ cover had me interested as did the premise of the story. Rape is an obviously horrible thing and there are certainly novels that present it in a way that has something worthwhile to say be that about healing or about the society in which we live or the plight of women in certain cultures. However I have found more often than not, especially in genre fiction, that a rape scene serves as a gratuitous shock and does little else. Sexual assault is not entertaining and despite what some authors seem to think it does not automatically add gravitas to a story. Given that there is a seemingly endless series of new novels and short story collections coming out as well as classics I have yet to read, if I read that a novel has a rape scene I’m pretty much going to give it a pass. Not always, depending on what I’ve read about how it does or does not serve the story and impact the character, but it is about a 90% certainty that I just won’t bother.

    Great job doing an honest review of your experience with the book.

  3. “However I have found more often than not, especially in genre fiction, that a rape scene serves as a gratuitous shock and does little else.”

    You said it better than I did: that’s exactly how this comes across.

    • Not sure about that, but thanks. I often feel reluctant to even share an opinion on this as a male since most often scenes of sexual assault in stories happen to women. I don’t want to sound and don’t mean to be pandering. I just sincerely don’t see the attraction for an author to put that in a story nor a reader to embrace it unless it truly is one of those rare books where it is done for the right reasons. Even then I would rather not get on board.

      • I feel exactly the same way, and I wasn’t sure if I should approach it until I started writing this up.

        At the end of the day, it’s simply in the way that it’s used that it bothers me the most: we see a very strong character stripped down naked & threatened. The male character isn’t threatened in nearly the same way, and ultimately, the scene & actions transform Falling into a character who isn’t as strong, and who realizes that all she needed in life wasn’t her starship, freedom and position as a captain, but a good man. It really pissed me off, because that positioning and attitude is such a load of crap.

      • Exactly. I like to see strong male and female romantic relationships in fiction. I have always been an unapologetic romantic and while I don’t go out of my way to find that in my fiction choices I like it when it exists. I’m always happy when I see an author, male or female, be able to present strong characters in relationships with other strong characters, relationships that certainly define each person and make you feel as if their feelings toward one another were authentic but also relationship in which each character is able to stand firmly on their own two feet.

        To see something you describe is a bad enough choice without the rape scene complicating it even further.

  4. Interesting. I had other issues with the book, specifically the heavy handedness of the romance. While I’m not a fan of rape scenes in books, for some reason it didn’t bother me here as

    a) she’s not raped (things don’t get that far)
    b) it fit the character of the bad guys to do this (as well as the plot) and
    c) contrary to what your review states, she was not traumatized by the situation. She’s keeping her mouth closed for a reason and it’s not because she’s scared (though grief is a factor). In fact she ends up using the guard’s lust against him. While she is a victim in that she’s been captured by the enemy, she’s no damsel in distress and she – not Kyle – frees them.

    I thought the author did a fantastic job with the character of Jorgun. It’s not often you find savant characters in such a prominent role in SF.

  5. Interesting. I had other issues with the book, specifically the heavy handedness of the romance. While I’m not a fan of rape scenes in books, for some reason it didn’t bother me here as

    a) she’s not raped (things don’t get that far)
    b) it fit the character of the bad guys to do this (as well as the plot) and
    c) contrary to what your review states, she was not traumatized by the situation. She’s keeping her mouth closed for a reason and it’s not because she’s scared (though grief is a factor). In fact she ends up using the guard’s lust against him. While she is a victim in that she’s been captured by the enemy, she’s no damsel in distress and she – not Kyle – frees them.

    I thought the author did a fantastic job with the character of Jorgun. It’s not often you find savant characters in such a prominent role in SF.

    • Grief was a major factor there, although yes, there’s extraneous circumstances: loss of her ship and whatnot. Regardless, she DID turn into a damsel in distress, and I felt that this scene was a major part of it. Note, I didn’t say that she was actually raped, just threatened by it.

  6. “Prudence is threatened by a violent rape that leaves her utterly traumatized”
    Wow, I have to agree with strider66 that this greatly misrepresents the scene. The attempted rape itself isn’t traumatizing. Prudence goes along with it just long enough to use the situation to her advantage, to disarm the guard and free herself and Kyle. And unlike him, she secretly has the means to escape the entire time she’s captured so she’s hardly a damsel in distress.

    • I disagree, as I read it. Now, your mileage might vary, but I think that it was an incredibly important part of how Falling ended up at the end. My comment about her being a damsel in distress isn’t so much about the scene, but how it affected her character as a whole: she’s very different at the end.

  7. I completely agree with the arguments put forth here against the causal use of sexual violence and weak female characters. My failure to demonstrate that was a failure of craft, not intent.

    • I never believed that there’s any bad intent here, just a reader seeing something different from how the author saw it.

      For much of the novel, I *did* enjoy your approach to Falling and your universe – I thought that it worked well until the end. I’ll be eager to see if you follow it up at some point, or set another story in the universe.

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