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.