Sunday, May 13, 2012

REVIEW: Shadow of the Wraith / Ross Harrison

TITLE: Shadow of the Wraith (NEXUS)
AUTHOR: Ross Harrison
PUBLISHER: Self-published
AVAILABILITY:  Lulu Marketplace (hardcover), Amazon US (Kindle e-book), Amazon UK (Kindle e-book), Smashwords (multiple e-formats)
APPROXIMATE LENGTH:  465 pages (hardcover)

Recommended for fans of space operas/space westerns (Firefly, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.) and anyone who enjoys adventures with fun moments

Science Fiction—Space Opera/Science Fantasy

Shadow of the Wraith is set in the distant future, in which humans have mastered space travel and settled on a new homeworld, becoming part of an interstellar alliance with a number of alien races, many of which are humanoid. Familiar territory for fans of Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. There is also something reminiscent of Firefly in the character of Travis Archer, a freelance bounty hunter turned rogue starship captain. In fact, in the book, Travis is a fan of the series.

Although Shadow of the Wraith is the first book of a planned series (called “Nexus), the story is self-contained and does not end with a cliffhanger.

This is a plot-driven story, and the bulk of the narrative consists of detailed action sequences—assassin attacks, fast getaways, space battles, etc. There are a number of mysteries, and sometimes the solution to one only brings up more, making it quite the page-turner.

Third person omniscient. The point of view rotates from character to character within a scene, and at times the narrative voice appears to be entirely the author’s own.

Travis Archer is a freelance bounty hunter who accepts an official assignment to hunt down and destroy the Star Wraith, a powerful but apparently unmanned ship with the nasty habit of appearing out of nowhere and destroying ships. He puts together a colorful crew of misfits, the most memorable members of whom are the beautiful but not-very-nice Juni Lien, who is deadly with weapons and not at all forthcoming about her motivations, and the somewhat cantankerous Jay Miller, an old pal of Travis’ with whom he is constantly butting heads.

Although Travis and his crew are the focus of the story, the narrative cuts to other scenes in a cinematic fashion, showing, for example, one of the Star Wraith’s attacks before he gets his assignment. The more fascinating of these scenes reveal glimpses of a shadowy villain called Baorshraak, whose goals and motivations remain shrouded in mystery even as he appears to be the one pulling the strings.

The world-building that takes place in this story is detailed but understated—we are given a good idea as to how this universe works without the lengthy explanations or technobabble. Readers not accustomed to science fiction will nonetheless be able to slip into the universe Harrison creates, which is clearly explained and familiar despite its futuristic setting. Most of the story takes place in the fringes of a highly advanced alliance of alien civilizations or on board starships.

In terms of narrative voice, Harrison writes with a distinct attitude that is very aware of the genre his story takes place in. References are made to the clichés of space opera, which he acknowledges and makes fun of even as he unapologetically takes advantage of them. Many ideas in this book are decidedly familiar—starfleets, space cowboys, humanoid aliens—but they are used well. There is a dry sense of humor that radiates not only from the characters but the narrative itself, as though it isn’t taking itself too seriously.

Travis himself appears well aware of the clichés he embodies, and he delights in them. For example, in the first chapter: “Twenty-six years of glowering at people—and forgetting his sunglasses on sunny days—had given Travis permanent glare lines and the useful ability to severely harden his eyes; reminiscent of a badass space cowboy, he liked to think.”

Although this attitude makes for entertaining commentary, there are a few moments where it seems somewhat intrusive—as though it’s the author speaking and not the character. Nevertheless, it’s what adds an extra bit of sparkle to the already dynamic plot, which carries the reader to unexpected corners of this galaxy.

Other notable points—although the story starts on a small scale, it eventually escalates from one man’s dangerous assignment to a potentially devastating interstellar conflict. Race relations between alien civilizations are touched upon—at one point, an official notes that one of Travis’ alien crew members cannot be paid like a human would. Also, there is an android called Arkuun-Marl with the obnoxious tendency to make lame jokes about everything. His commentary is cringingly facepalm-worthy, and the other characters are quick to tell him to shut up, adding an element of quirky comedy to the story.

Overall, Shadow of the Wraith is a smartly plotted and entertaining space adventure that takes the reader on many twists and turns—the direction the story goes in is quite different from what is expected. But in the end, it’s really the characters’ voices—and Harrison’s—that make it memorable. I ended up enjoying it so much that I suffered from two nights in a row of Star Wraith Insomnia—the inability to sleep due to the fact that I had to keep reading.

Heads up to American readers: Shadow of the Wraith uses British formatting conventions.

In terms of spelling and grammar, this book is well-written and has a natural flow to it. There are a teeny, tiny, barely perceptible number of typos.

The book is organized by location, not chapter numbers, and so there is no table of contents.

There is some adult language and a lot of violence, but nothing gruesome or graphic.

[From's author page] 

Ross Harrison has been writing since childhood without thought of publication. When the idea was planted by his grandmother to do so, it grew rapidly, and after a bumpy ten years or so, here sits the fruit.

Ross lives on the UK/Eire border in Ireland, hoping the rain will help his hair grow back.

Check out his blog, Like his Facebook page, or Follow him on Twitter

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