Devil’s Gun by Cat Rambo (book review)

Cat Rambo and, yes, that is their real name, is an award-winning American writer of speculative fiction. I reviewed a short story collection of theirs back in 2011, so when I found out they had a new Science Fiction novel coming out, I was keen to get hold of a copy.

‘Devil’s Gun’ is the sequel to ‘You Sexy Thing’, which came out in 2021. In the first book, we met Captain Niko Larsen and her multi-species crew. Originally, a military unit for the Holy Hive Mind, when Niko decided it was time for them all to quit soldiering, the team took the bold decision to set up a restaurant on a space station instead. Amazingly, their new venture proved highly successful, until somebody decided to blow up the space station, forcing them to steal a bioship called ‘You Sexy Thing’ in order to escape with their lives. Their relief was however short-lived, as they ended up being captured by a notorious space pirate called Tubal Last. They eventually managed to flee his lair but at the cost of one crewmember’s life. Worse, Tubal Last has sworn bloody revenge on all of them, including Niko’s former lover Petalia, who fell out with Niko and has gone her own way.

At the start of the present book, Niko tells her crew that they now have two immediate priorities. First, to find Petalia, wherever they have fled to, and protect them from falling into Tubal Last’s clutches. Second, to find a way to foil Last’s hopes of revenge, even if that means taking him out of the picture permanently. Unfortunately, Niko’s plans fall at the first hurdle. When they get to the nearest Star Gate, one of a network of Gates which form the sole mechanism enabling faster-than-light travel across the galaxy, it isn’t working. Thankfully, a woman called Jezli Farren, who claims to be able to fix the Gate, is on the way. In the meantime, Niko’s crew revert to type, creating a pop-up restaurant in the ship’s hold to cater for the culinary needs of the many other spaceships that are also waiting for the Gate to be fixed.

When Farren does turn up, not only does she fix the Gate but also indicates that she may be able to help Niko locate a weapon powerful enough to deal with Tubal Last, once and for all. In short order, Niko’s plans are back on the table. Surely nothing else can go wrong?

What I loved about this book was the breadth and depth of the characterisation. The main members of Niko Larsen’s multi-species, multi-gender crew are her second-in command, Dabry Jen, who is a four-armed Ettilite, the sign-language-using augmented Earth chimpanzee Gio, a squid-like Tlellan called Skidoo, a reptilian former priest called Lassite, who is a Sessile, the bird-like Nneti called Milly, a leonine shape-shifter called Talon; and Atlanta, who used to think that she was heir to an Empire, but now knows that she is merely a clone of the real heir, with no power or role.

These diverse characters are brought to life through great writing that shows us how different each is from the others, and yet how they manage to function, most of the time at least, as an effective team under Niko’s leadership. They have back stories which transform them from stock alien beings into real people with genuine motivations. I liked spending time with them and wanted them to succeed.

Since I’m talking about characters, it’s probably unfair of me not to mention You Sexy Thing, the intelligent bioship they’re travelling on. The ship has existed for a long time but, due to lack of use by its previous owner, had developed no independent personality. Exposed to the adventures of its current crew, it is just starting to think for itself. Unfortunately for Niko, the ship often acts like a moody teenager, doing whatever it thinks will be most exciting, whether it fits in with the mission or not. So, in addition to providing the setting for much of the story, You Sexy Thing is also a somewhat anarchic additional character, frequently providing yet more headaches for Niko to contend with.

While I loved the characters, what frustrated me about this book was the relative lack of incident. Ultimately, across nearly 300 pages of text, not an awful lot happens. Atlanta spends a huge amount of time wondering what to do, now she’s no long an imperial heir. Talon, whose twin brother Thorn was murdered by Tubal Last in the first book, spends the entire novel soaked in self-pitying grief. While entirely understandable, it makes for tedious reading. Most seriously for me, neither of the two main plot developments that arise over the last third of the book are satisfactorily resolved. Instead, they seem to exist purely to tee up the storyline for book three. Indeed, when I got to the end of the novel and belatedly realised that it was book two in a projected trilogy, I was disappointed to find so little being concluded. Later, it occurred to me that ‘Devil’s Gun’ suffers from the classic problem that afflicts so many novels in its position. The first and last books in a trilogy have clear functions, with one setting up the dramatic storyline and the other resolving it. The function of the middle book, though, is less clear.

All of that said, ‘Devil’s Gun’ provides a masterclass in alien characterisation, wrapped up in an intriguing, fun and very different type of space opera. If you are a fan of the episodes in ‘Star Trek: Voyager’ that feature the alien chef Neelix, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the literal mash-up of SF and cooking at the heart of ‘Devil’s Gun’.

Patrick Mahon

September 2023

(pub: TOR, 2023. 288 page hardback. Price: $27.99 (USA), $36.99 (CAN). ISBN 978-1-250-26935-5) 

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