Map of Blue Book Balloon

1 June 2021

#Review - Ten Low by Stark Holborn

Design by Julia Lloyd
Ten Low
Stark Holborn
Titan Books, 1 June 2021
Available as: PB, 336pp, e, audio
Source: Advance copy kindly supplied by the publisher
ISBN(PB): 9781789096620

I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance copy of Stark Holborn's Ten Low to consider for review.

After reading Holborn's Nunslinger, Triggernometry and Advanced Triggernometry, I had high expectations for Ten Low and they were fully met.

Ten Low is a person - a woman living on the remote moon Factus, somewhere out on the edge of known space. "Ten" refers to the length of the sentence she's served before please onto this barren world - a desperate, arid place inhabited by organ scavengers, smugglers, religious fanatics and outlaws, all kept alive by a dripfeed of resources from the ruling power of space, the Accord, much of which is however skimmed off before it ever arrives, leaving Factus only the dregs.

I'm not sure whether this milieu is one that Ten chose, or whether there are reasons why she's here and not some more pleasant world, but it does seem appropriate for her because we gradually learn about some dark things she has to atone for. At the beginning though all we really know is that she's trying to save lives, trying to even up the score. Her status as a medic buys her a degree of protection, of neutrality, among her fellows even on Factus but it's not proof against all dangers - and particularly not the weird, fate-shifting effect of the mysterious 'Them'. 'They' are a race - or a supernatural power - or a myth - apparently native to Factus. You don't talk about Them, in case They hear and take a hand in things, causing, and feeding on, consequences and chaos. And Ten's all about the consequences, so she is constantly on her guard, looking for signs that They may be up to something.

Perhaps They are... into the blighted wastes of Factus comes an outsider, Gabi, a child General of the Accord, a woman (or girl - it's truly mixed up and I really don't know how to judge this) with plenty of blood on her hands, but of course absolved, as a member of the winning side in the recent war. Marooned after an accident with her ship, she's determined to get back to her command, but Factus isn't an easy place to escape. The two must make their way across the moon, trading for basic necessities at windswept outposts and evading an eager posse of bounty hunters, kidnappers and aggrieved citizens (it's complicated). Playing on the characteristic notes of a Western in a SF setting, Ten Low gives us one Woman With a Past and another woman - or girl - who may not have a Future (or who may have many Futures, if They have anything to do with it). 

The relationship between Ten and Gabi is initially hostile. The General assumes that Ten is a traitor, but the two need to cooperate to survive, and besides, Ten has obscure reasons of her own for wanting to save lives. The General is a decorated war hero, but rather at sea on this dusty moon and unable to call in help. Not a new setup, but Holborn truly makes it her own, allowing the two to speak for themselves (their character also becomes clearer through a range of allies and enemies with whom they have history). The relationship is complex, drawing on hurts and crimes and losses that are rarely actually described but which make themselves felt by their influence on the behaviours we see and on the goals and methods of the protagonists. Ten, for example, is reluctant to hurt or kill which frustrates the General but then something happens and we suddenly understand why she's like that. Gabi, the General, has clearly suffered some kind of conditioning to make her into a war-winning machine but there is more to her than that and you need to ask why she would - as she seems to have - cooperate with such a process?

Also unclear but (partly) revealed in the evolving pattern of this book is a developing mystery revolving around what 'They' want, something hinted at in obscure prophesies and startling moments where the hidden threads of the cosmos seem to be exposed. Ten seems important to that, although she doesn't understand the reasons any more than we as readers do (even though all this does at times seem to give her an edge).

It's a genuinely gripping story, driven by action on almost every page and the kind of book that once picked up, you don't want to let go till you've finished. Those desert wastes and enigmatic characters do grow on you...

For more information about Ten Low, see the publisher's website here.




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