Review of Alliance by S.K. Dunstall
by S.K. Dunstall
Oh my god give me all these books I want this entire series on my shelf right now. Alliance builds on the exciting promise made by S.K. Dunstall in Linesman to bring us a new space opera series that is bold both in its vision of interstellar politics and its cool SF technology. After a long time avoiding space opera (except to catch up on the good stuff I’ve missed) because of the overgrown weeds of nanotech posthumanism, I’m so happy to be enthusiastic about a brand new entry into this subgenre. While this particular instalment of the series didn’t excite me quite as much as Linesman, returning to Ean’s world and his quest to change humanity’s relationship to the alien lines is still a thrilling experience. As usual, no spoilers for this book, but spoilers for the previous one abound.
Picking up a few months after the ending of Linesman, Alliance shows us a human galaxy in a state of warmed-over cold war. Gate Union and the New Alliance are technically at war but basically not outright fighting, with each hoping that the other will blink. Smart money seems to be on Gate Union, since it controls the assignment of jumps—but the New Alliance’s privileged access to a fleet of alien ships throws a big unknown into this assessment. And so Dunstall immediately establishes the stakes: you know, nothing short of massive interstellar conflict and death and injury on a staggering scale. No pressure, Ean.
Whereas, in the first book, Ean is largely a marginalized figure who suddenly finds himself in the spotlight, Alliance sees him adapting to his more prominent role. He is in charge of training linesmen (and people passed over for line training) in his much-maligned method of singing to the lines. As this takes traction among the Alliance contingent, a faction within Gate Union plots to kidnap Ean and steal his secrets. But they fundamentally misunderstand both his role within the Alliance and the key to his skills, meaning that their kidnapping attempts fail comically. Meanwhile, any number of smaller schemes between factions or groups of individuals within the New Alliance threaten to impinge on Ean and his team’s attempts to master the alien ships they suddenly have access to. This last includes the political decision over who to appoint captain of the alien flagship, the Eleven. Who better than a traumatized captain only recently recovered from losing her ship in a sneak attack?
Looking back on that last paragraph, I marvel now at Dunstall’s ability to fit so much into such a confined volume! When reading the book, it didn’t really feel like a lot was happening. Yet there is so much; there are so many minor players and pawns involved, people I didn’t even mention—it is really a testament to the skill of sisters Sherylyn and Karen that they manage to keep it all together as a cohesive narrative. We’re not quite talking A Song of Ice and Fire level complexity here—Dunstall sensibly keeps the narration following Ean and Selma Kari Wang, for the most part, with a few interjections from third parties. Nevertheless, Alliance has a decent plot density that really contributes to what people often talk about when they toss around terms like worldbuilding. Without going into too much exposition about this universe, Dunstall manages to describe its functioning simply through the progression of the plot itself. Love it.
We learn a little bit more about the functions of the lines. Most of the developments, however, centre on Ean’s relationship to the other linesmen and how his training will affect their profession. I like the juxtaposition of Ean’s disruptive program with his cartel dealings with the Rickenback, Paretus, and Rigel. One really gets the sense that we’re in the middle of this intense paradigm shift in how humanity uses the lines. Outright mind-blowing revelation scenes are few and far between, but there are just so many moments of varying subtlety to indicate how the lines are more complex than linesmen have traditionally believed. From Ean’s observations of the captains of the Eleven’s fleet to the would-be kidnappers underestimating Ean’s abilities, it is clear that in this incipient war, technology might not be the determining factor so much as the ability to adapt to these new circumstances.
Some of my favourite characters, like Abram and Michelle, are more sidelined in this book. That makes me a little sad. This is the type of series, though, where the author will eternally have the dilemma of wanting to give a little fan service by giving us the same-old, same-old that we crave and actually challenging us by opening up new vistas. Abram’s promotion and subsequent replacement by Vega creates some necessary new conflict in Ean and Michelle’s life. I just wish we got more of these characters than we did! Still, I’m optimistic they will play larger roles next time around. Conversely, I could have done with even less of Stellan. His incompetence verged on dull at times. I admire how Dunstall uses his failure to emphasize the fundamentally flawed approach that Markan is taking to dealing with Ean and the Alliance. Nevertheless, he himself verges on a kind of buffoonish caricature of a villain, in my opinion. Hopefully as the war heats up we’ll see more sides to him.
Alliance introduces a new, significant protagonist in Selma Kari Wang. She complements Ean very well in so many respects. I also love how Ean is initially very excited by the way Eleven seems ready to bond with her, but when she inadvertently threatens the safety of the ship/fleet, he suddenly gets super protective. The fluidity and fragility of their fledgling relationship feels very real and organic. Similarly, Selma initially views Ean as a Lancastrian puppet and a know-it-all Level 10 linesman; she has no idea of what has happened in recent months because of her injuries. So she has to get up to speed, and both of them will gradually have to develop a working respect (one would hope).
If there is one thing I want to get across here, it’s the marvellous and myriad ways Dunstall creates and takes advantage of the opportunities for conflict within Alliance. In addition to the over-arching galactic conflict, there are so many little conflicts among minor characters, between people who are supposed to be allies, etc. Whether it’s the frenemy bromance brewing between Ean and Jordan Rossi or the grating tension between Ean and Vega, there are so many little sparks that could potentially become fires. Note that it’s the potential that matters: if everything developed into a full-blown subplot this book really would be longer than Game of Thrones … rather, Dunstall artfully picks and chooses which conflicts to emphasize and which to let simmer on the backburner, much like in real life. (And so we come to the dirty secret of space opera: it’s more about opera than it is about space; human conflicts, human stories, are the bread and butter. The “space” is just an excuse for everyone to wear form-fitting catsuits.)
Alliance did not wow me quite as much as Linesman did, that much is true. That’s partly just because Linesman was that good, though; don’t think of Alliance as worse, but simply as building off that platform. It furthers the story arc of the series and has kept me excited—so much so, in fact, that I pre-ordered Confluence, out in November, because I want that book as soon as I can get it, and, since there’s no point in owning just the third book in a series, I’ve bought these first two books as well.
I don’t know if this is a trilogy or an ongoing series—I eternally hold out hope for the latter, but even if it’s the former, I’ve high hopes for Confluence. Alliance left me with several questions, most of which I won’t get into so as to avoid spoilers, but here are the biggies: when will we meet aliens, and why hasn’t humanity run into them before?
I am looking forward to finding out!