John Ayliff, Belt Three, Harper Voyager, 2015.
Nothing I've read recently has quite made the cut for the blog. So here I was, wringing my hands, "What to review?", when I remembered Belt Three by John Ayliff. I read it a few months back, but at the time I was in a run of very strong stories and it fell off the podium despite some solid qualities. I'm glad this space opera got now its second chance because it is well worth a look.
Earth and its solar system have been destroyed long ago by Worldbreakers, alien machines that obliterate planets. Earth true-born are now rare and generally very rich. Gabriel Reinhardt is one of them, or rather was, since living in his place and using his name is a clone named Jonas. When pirates board his mining ship, he thinks he will be mind swiped, but soon, he finds himself forced to collaborate with Keldra, the pirate captain, who wants to destroy the Worldbreakers.
Belt Three will tick all the right boxes if you are looking for a space opera with a great sense of scope and a solid worldbuilding. As we move from place to place with Jonas and Keldra, we discover the extent of the damage done to human civilisation in which no universities remain and knowledge has been lost. Clones represent the majority, but they are little more than slaves that can be mind-wiped in an instant while the rich true-born display their arrogance and bigotry. The novel nicely touches upon themes such as racism, homophobia and cults, even though we remain in well trodden grounds.
But Belt Three is mainly an action packed story. In this, you can feel Ayliff's interest in games, as there's a real sense of progression as through an RPG: the understanding of what Worldbreakers are is slowly built, by looking for and stealing artefacts, until the final act. The story flows at a good pace and it becomes quite an entertaining read.
I also enjoyed how there wasn't one villain to destroy, but rather a succession of colossal failures to overcome a situation that becomes more and more unsustenable.
The two main characters, Keldra and Jonas, soon become quite endearing. Even if by some aspects they are stereotypical, the dialogues are written in a lively fashion that makes them come into a life of their own. Keldra's nihilistic approach becomes quite touching, while Jonas tries to untangle himself from a web of lies. As the novel reaches its conclusion, it's difficult not to care for both of them.
Belt Three will be a great escapist read for anyone looking for adventures in space in a well built world. It may not have the scope of a long running series such as The Expanse, but as a stand alone novel, it'll nicely fill the requirements if you're looking for something along the same lines.
The writer's website.
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