The Kassa Gambit, by M.C. Planck, is a pretty run-of-the-mill space-action book, a debut book that feels like a debut book in many ways. Those issues mostly made the book fall flat for me, though the main character was intriguing enough that I might pick up a second book involving her, were one to come along.
The universe of The Kassa Gambit is one in which humans have long ago left Earth behind (it’s merely a legend now) and spread throughout the galaxies via “nodes,” gates in space that allow for big jumps in short time periods. Nowhere have they run into anything more than basic lifeforms and now humanity has settled into small system populations, with not a lot of travel between systems, especially anything more than a few node “hops” away. Exceptions are traders, and that leads us to one of our two main characters — Prudence Falling, fiercely independent captain of the freighter ship Ulysses, crewed by an often stoned engineer (Melvin), an often drunk self-styled crazy Mexican in charge of the cargo/trade aspects (Garcia), and a hulking child-man idiot savant navigator (Jorgun).
The novel opens with the Ulysses coming out of a node jump above the relatively primitive farm planet Kassa, which has been bombed into an even more primitive state by unknown attackers who showed up, leveled the place, and disappeared. As Prudence and her crew help the survivors, they run into our second main character — Kyle Daspar, ostensibly a city cop but actually someone with complicated levels of involvement/antagonism with the League, the frustratingly vague organizing/governing group of general humanity (I think. As I said, it’s a bit vague).
When the two discover what appears to be a crashed ship of the alien invaders, it sets into motion the entire rest of the story as to the two split up to investigate different tracks and then eventually come back together, though not without a lot of close calls, assassination attempts, cracking open of secrets, etc. in between. What they find out will affect not just the nearby system of Altair (one of the richest human systems) but maybe all of humanity.
The strength of The Kassa Gambit by far is Prudence herself, a character with a secretive but clearly traumatic past, a nicely complex and likable present, and an often-unsure future. I’d say there are problems with the execution of how her character is sometimes presented, but she’s a fully fleshed out character who holds up well under the burden of carrying the book.
Kyle fares less well, as I never really felt him as a person as opposed to as a character. For instance, I never felt fully sure on an emotional level of why he was doing something, even if he explained it himself via monologue or dialogue (though because of his context his dialogue is not always trustworthy).
The other characters vary in their impact and three-dimensionality, with the crewmembers feeling more like types than people. Beyond Prudence, my favorite two were a shop owner who sells “alien” artifacts and an academic who specializes in aliens (or the lack of them).
The plot is simply OK; I can’t say I was surprised by much that happened and some of it has a familiar feel to it. In some ways its extremely simple and in other ways, mostly in background story, it’s much more complex, though the complexity never feel fully concrete. Part of it reminds of old YA action science fiction (Asimov’s LUCKY STARR series, for instance), while some of it feels like it’s really reaching for a really big, detailed, rich idea of future spacefaring human culture. (I like, for example, a section in the book where a character muses on how the methods and economies of space flight affect who goes where when.) However, it remains just an idea with too little sketched in (I never, as mentioned, got a grip on the League, on the relationship between local system governments and larger ones, between the military and the non-military, etc.), almost like a half-finished drawing.
The romantic relationship between Kyle and Prudence (I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here; it was telegraphed from the start and one can see where it’s going) feels a bit forced and dreary, almost as if the author is putting them together romantically together because, well, that’s what one does with male and female leads.
There is too much internal monologue for me, too much of the characters telling us what is happening with them or why. I would rather have let some of the characterization be revealed via action and dialogue. The monologues also sometimes seem to interrupt in awkward or poorly timed fashion at times, which adds to a general problem of uneven pacing throughout the novel.
I think another reason for the pacing issue is the possibility that The Kassa Gambit is never quite sure exactly what it wants to be. Is it a First Contact story? An Alien Invasion story? A Police Procedural? Military Sci-Fi? A Spy Novel? A Political Conspiracy Thriller? Certainly a novel doesn’t have to be “One Thing,” and the best of novels rarely fit neatly into one type. But this is where I think the debut issue comes into the mix, along with the execution problems above. It takes a deft hand to throw all these possible novel types into one book, and Planck doesn’t really pull it off. Instead of forming a uniquely flavored soup, it feels like each time you dip your spoon in you come up with a different ingredient or clump of spice, and the flavors don’t always agree with one another or follow well one upon the other.
The ending is surprisingly anti-climactic and relies a little too much on stupidity on the bad guys’ part for my liking. It does resolve itself but also leaves room for Kyle and Prudence to find themselves another adventure. Given the usual improvement from a book one to a book two for new novelists, I’d consider giving a second book a chance, but The Kassa Gambit doesn’t quite have enough to garner a recommended read.