As I reflected in my recent review of Children of Time, I’m not really in the mood for grimdark science fiction these days. I get that humanity is facing yet another existential crisis, this time thanks to climate change, and that this makes authors eager to write about us evacuating the planet and whatnot. But I just find it so bleak, and I yearn for hope. So when I first heard about Arkhangelsk by Elizabeth H. Bonesteel, I was very apprehensive. Nevertheless, I received an eARC from House Panther Publishing and NetGalley, and I gave it a shot. I’m really glad I kept an open mind, because Arkhangelsk pleasantly surprised me. This is not a book about bleakness. Much like Tchaikovsky’s novel, this is a book about hope.
An isolated outpost of humanity subsists, barely, on an icy world. The survivors of the great ship Arkhangelsk, these people have largely forgotten their past, clinging only to the knowledge that they fled an Earth ravaged by war and conflicting politics. Life is hardscrabble, but it is a life. Nevertheless, Anya is the Chief Peace Officer, and she is determined to get to the bottom of the latest in a long string of disappearances of women from the town. Then her world is torn asunder when another ship from Earth arrives in orbit. Suddenly, they are no longer alone.
This book starts as a murder mystery before taking a hard left turn and then slowly wending back into mystery territory and I am here for it. Bonesteel’s writing style honestly doesn’t do a lot for me, but her plotting is so careful and compelling that it was easy for me to read this book in big gulps.
The relationship between Anya and Maddie, the captain of the starship that arrives, is probably the most significant aspect of the book for me. The ups and downs feel very realistic considering the stresses that occur throughout the story, and I appreciate how Bonesteel plays the attraction between these characters as ambiguous. One can read it as romantic if one wants, but of course, your resident aromantic book reviewer always prefers to headcanon that it is platonic or queerplatonic instead. Anya and Maddie nevertheless have some kind of bond, yet the friction between them becomes an interesting and useful part of the story.
Some aspects of the plot, and the characters behind them, are fairly despicable. I like that Bonesteel is able to make these characters’ motivations very clear and understandable to us—they aren’t moustache-twirling villains even if that is how I feel about what they are up to. But the main enemy, in almost all senses, is time. The antagonists are working against the depredations of time on their genomes and bodies, and the arrival of new people from Earth heralds a new race against the clock, as it is only a matter of time before more ships arrive.
I also appreciate how the book highlights the irreplaceable importance of community and interdependence. This outpost cannot ultimately survive on its own, as much as many of its members would like to think so. Neither can the exiles. Nor can Maddie’s ship. The reconnection with Earth is terrifying in a cultural sense, for these people are rightly worried about what might happen to their fragile society as more and more people with strange ideas arrive. Yet the message is clear: we are stronger together. I, for one, find that heartening.
Arkhangelsk is what I might call a medley of a novel. It has several plots tightly curled together, mysteries and friendships and betrayals and a wistful admission that space travel is ultimately lonely yet perhaps … necessary. Bonesteel surpasses my expectations in a subgenre that often disappoints me with its unimaginative nihilistic view on humanity’s prospects. Instead, she elevates the challenges of this setting into a story that persuades me of its worthiness, and I don’t mind that one bit.