BRIEF SYNOPSIS: All that remains of humanity is concentrated in the city of Darwin, home to the space elevator. The elevator, a mysterious gift from the alien Builders, emits an aura that protects against a virus that turns victims into subhuman monsters. But the elevator is starting to malfunction and it is up to Skyler Luiken, the immune scavenger captain, to restore order before it is too late.
PROS: Plenty of action, politicking, and discovery; mostly solid characters and a unique setting.
CONS: A few characters could have used more depth.
BOTTOM LINE: Debut author Jason M. Hough has created a fantastic future that is fully fit to expand into a full blown franchise.
No one knows why the Builders sent the space elevator to Earth. All they know is that it has an aura that protects against a horrible disease that kills 90% of humans and turns the other 10% into mindless savages. And so the remnants of humanity cluster around the elevator in the slum city of Darwin, Australia. Earth’s brightest live on the elevator, sending down food in exchange for water and oxygen. There is a power struggle between the dictator that defends the elevator from the dregs of Darwin and the Orbital Council that live high above. Darwin is overpopulated, teeming with unskilled workers and rife with crime. Scavenger crews strike out into The Clear beyond the aura, braving the dangerous subhumans in order to make a living by providing much needed supplies. Bullets are a reliable form of currency and gardens are a sign of wealth and affluence. This is the future of The Darwin Elevator.
And what a future it is! Jason M. Hough has a lot going for him, from a fantastic Christian McGrath cover to a nice blurb from popular urban fantasy author, Kevin Hearne. Then of course there is the level of confidence expressed by Del Rey, in publishing the entire Dire Earth Cycle trilogy back-to-back. The Darwin Elevator is out in July, followed by The Exodus Towers in August, and The Plague Forge in September. Then there are the comparisons of the Dire Earth Cycle to Joss Whedon’s Firefly and the works of John Scalzi. If all that isn’t enough to catch your interest then you must be the most exciting person in the world. Being rather dull myself, I immediately went to Hough and begged for a review copy. He graciously signed me up to receive a copy of The Darwin Elevator and so the adventure began.
Simply put: The Darwin Elevator is fun! Not only is it fun, but it is unique. Reading it I couldn’t help but thinking that it would make a great television series. The chapters would allow for episodic content but more importantly there is a distinctive aesthetic to be capitalized on, a la Battlestar Galactica or Stargate SG-1. From the sterile, high-tech environment of the elevator stations to the ad hoc slums of Darwin, and the abandoned ruins of the world outside the aura. The elevator itself is iconic, much in the way the Death Star symbolizes Star Wars. The characters are colorful and varied and there is enough action, suspense, scheming, mystery, and wonder to float an entire television series for sure.
Skyler Luiken is a likable protagonist, as a captain that struggles with the burden of leadership. He is a scavenger with a crew that is down-on-its-luck, trying to make ends meet. I do wish more effort had been dedicated to filling out the personality of the crew members, specifically the abnormally tall, confrontational-bordering-on-mutinous, ops specialist Samantha. The foundation is there to build on but ultimately the crew remains rather one-dimensional. Hough does a much better job with the rest of the cast, particularly Russel Blackfield and Neil Platz. Russel is a petty bully that styles himself a warlord. He’s an ambitious fellow, determined to gain a seat on the Orbital Council at all costs. I appreciate Russel as a villain, in that he is quite obviously used to being a big fish in a little pond. My only complaint is that he has the cliche aggressive sexual attitude that all villains seem to display these days. Neil Platz is another interesting character. I spent most of the novel trying to figure out whether he is one of the good guys or the bad guys. In the end I’m still left undecided, though I will say that whatever he is, he has an iron pair.
I love the setting. This future Earth is crumbling (Darwin) but there is still hope (the elevator). Hough instills a lot of character in the environments he writes about. I instantly got a feel for the desperation and nastiness of the city, a city where a bicycle is a valuable commodity and a bicycle repairman is a valuable skill set. This is a future where scavengers have an almost celebrity status among the people, and scientists are despised because they live above the toils and troubles of the city. There is such a striking duality in the divide, and it is only compounded further when Skyler and his crew venture out into The Clear. The imagery is astounding. There is so much wonder, it is like this cool kind of science fiction that takes Earth and makes it alien. Earth is the final frontier in The Darwin Elevator. Then there is the mystery of the alien Builders. There are no answers to be found in the first book of the Dire Earth Cycle, though plenty more questions are raised come the final page. I’m eager to see where Hough takes the story regarding the Builders. It could either end up very, very cool and gripping or it could fizzle out into something rather lame. I’ll bet on the former.
And what would a sci-fi thriller be without the action? Hough peppers the story with pulse pounding moments involving intense excursions into derelict buildings filled with subhumans and zero-gravity gun battles. There are fight fights and air drops and assassinations. The political power struggle between the Orbital Council and Russel Blackfield is also quite exciting. All the maneuvering and plotting is delicious.
The Darwin Elevator is a debut novel unlike any other. It’s not the best debut I’ve ever read, though it makes the Top 10 list. What sets the first book in Hough’s Dire Earth Cycle apart from so many other books is that it has the makings of a far-reaching franchise. This has the potential to be so much more than a book trilogy. When I look at The Darwin Elevator I see a television series, videogames, action figures even. I hope that Hough and Del Rey really take the effort to capitalize on what they have, because this is something special. Something iconic. The Darwin Elevator is full of majesty and wonder, mystery and mayhem, colorful characters and insidious schemes. Thank the literary gods that these novels are being released back to back, because I know that I wouldn’t want to endure the wait.