|Cover design by Lauren Panepinto|
Megan E O'Keefe
Orbit, 28 July 2020
Available as: PB, 546pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB supplied by Orbit
I'm grateful to Orbit for a free advance copy of Chaos Vector.
Following Velocity Weapon, with Chaos Vector O'Keefe takes us further into the twisted world of The Protectorate.
Further meaning both deeper and higher.
Deeper, because while the first book focussed on a relatively straightforward rebellion in a remote system, where the planet of Icarion was challenging the local leadership of the galaxy-spanning Prime government, Chaos Vector goes beyond that conflict, revealing more about the hidden forces which have been shaping the destiny of Prime.
Higher, because even beyond those shady figures in the background, there are greater powers at work. O'Keefe's writing is like a constantly revealed map, with each new unfold opening fresh perspectives on what went before, showing things that seemed close together as distinct and offering new symbols and features to fit into the pattern.
We begin, as in Velocity Weapon, with Major Sanda Greeve. All she ever wanted to do was to defend Prime, to protect her brother, Keeper Biran. Yet after her gunship was destroyed at the battle of Dralee, everything went wrong. She's been kidnapped by a rogue AI, put on trial for piracy by Icarion, experimented on, spaced by a traitor Keeper and - now - framed for said Keeper's murder. Sanda is pretty cross and is searching for the truth.
Probably a bad move, as the hard-bitten gang of Grotta outcasts comprising Jules, Now and Arden discovered for themselves in the previous book when they raided the wrong warehouse for the drug Wraith and poked their noses into the wrong places in that wrong warehouse. Now they're scattered and in hiding.
We saw these two threads of story evolve in parallel throughout Velocity Weapon but not come together and I think this was a brave decision by O'Keefe, allowing each strand to develop at the right pace rather than forcing things together too early. It's not too much of a spoiler (I hope) to say that in Chaos Vector, they finally merge, as Sanda gets command of a ship again and forms her own strange but effective crew, fit to discover the weird corners of this universe. The strange gates that link distant systems. The unknown, powerful military forces that seem to have infiltrated Prime itself. The far-flung research stations pursuing knowledge that Prime forbids. It all takes off here, but to Sanda's frustration she's not free to pursue her own vendetta, but has responsibilities thrust on her - for Prime, for the Keepers and, of course, for her brother Biran. While he fights his own bureaucratic battle in conference chambers and over score links - trying to put out the fire that Icarion lit in the first book - Sanda follows a trail of breadcrumbs halfway across the galaxy.
This is a fast-moving adventure, full of epic battles, treachery, sudden reverses and above all, secrets. EVERYONE here is hiding things and the details are revealed slowly and sparingly - trust is in short supply. The real tension is not only, or not primarily, from physical conflict (although there are moments of high adrenalin conflict you have to read over and again just to be sure you got them right) but from the emotional drumbeat, the rhythm of the story, as all that is dependable, sure, and safe falls away leaving survival to the quick wits and desperate gambles of Sanda, Tomas, Biran and the rest.
If you thought at the end of Book 1 that you were beginning to understand what was going on, you'll soon realise you don't. And while a great deal is clearer by the end of Book 2, I'll guarantee that there are more surprises and twists in store in the next one - which is fine by me, I just need to get my hands on it!
Following up with the second in a series is a tricky thing to do, with the need to offer more of the same while also adding in the new, prompting the reader on what happened in the first part without too much recapping, and offering enough of a self-contained story to satisfy those strange creatures (I am sometimes one myself) who read individual volumes as standalones. O'Keefe succeeds with aplomb, delivering an intelligent space opera with compelling and flawed characters working their way through a messy, shady world where nothing is as it seems... just perfect SF really.
For more information about Chaos Vector, see the Orbit website here.