Review of Confluence by S.K. Dunstall
by S.K. Dunstall
Spoilers for the first two books but not this one, except maybe a minor not-quite spoiler at the very end.
Hey, SyFy executives who totally spend their time reading some rando’s reviews on Goodreads when they should be doing Important Executive Things™: you need to option the Linesman series and develop it for TV like you did with The Expanse. You did a really good job with The Expanse, by the way; I’m back on board the SyFy train after those few rocky years. I think you’d do Linesman justice, and this is a series that needs to be adapted.
I’m not saying that because I think good books must inevitably be televised or turned into a movie in order to reach their zenith. No, this is purely selfish: I really need something to tide me over until the next Linesman book comes out. A TV series will do it.
Confluence is the third book in this series, and S.K. Dunstall is back in fine form. Whereas the previous book, Alliance, focused on fighting an external power play, this book’s politics turn inwards. Emperor Yu thinks Lancia got a raw deal when his daughter, Crown Princess Michelle, orchestrated its founding role in the New Alliance. So it’s a daddy vs daughter dynastic struggle, with Ean and friends caught in the middle. Fight!
Meanwhile, hold the phone, because we get a Radko POV.
Yeah, it’s everything it sounds like. And more. Radko gets sent off on a covert ops mission to Redmond. Everything goes horribly wrong (obviously), and she has to improvise big time. Although she does end up in a bit of a damsel-in-distress situation where Ean has to “rescue” her, I’d argue it’s forgivable because he wouldn’t even know how to find her if it weren’t for her quick thinking, nor would they be aware of the traitor in their midst. But … I promised no spoilers! Suffice it to say, Radko and her actions are pivotal to the plot of Confluence.
As I mentioned in my review of Alliance, Dunstall has a great knack for sowing the seeds of potential conflict throughout their characters. They show us multiple perspectives so we have an idea of the different plots afoot, yet you’re never 100 per cent certain who is on any given character’s side. It’s both maddening and exciting, and for people who have now grown up and grown used to epic storylines à la Game of Thrones, this series is going to hit that sweet spot. There isn’t as much senseless brutality as something like Game of Thrones, but the high-stakes politicking is there.
I’ve previous compared this series to the Vorkosigan saga and stand by it. If you’re missing Miles, then you should check out these books. There isn’t a single analogous character, but rather an ensemble cast—Ean, Radko, Abram, and Michelle all have aspects of Miles to them. This series also feels like a worthy spiritual successor to Dune. It emulates a lot of the feudal structures that both Bujold and Herbert brought into their space opera, allowing for the kind of romantic power struggles that are so difficult to replicate among parliamentary or congressional type governments. And, as with Dune’s novum of the spice, the lines in this series make for such an intriguing technology that humans only barely control and continue to explore.
That being said, don’t get the impression that this series is derivative. It’s a descendent, but it is its own story. You see this most clearly around the fringes of the narrative, which is to say, where the seams start to become more visible. For three books now, Dunstall has tantalized us with the promise of aliens. They are out there—they built the Confluence and the Eleven, and we have stasis-locked corpses of them now. But where are the living ones? How pissed off will they be when they discover that humanity has jacked their fleet? Again, no spoilers about what we learn in this book.
Suffice it to say, Ean continues his experimentation with the lines. We learn less about them than we have in previous books. Instead, the subplot here is more about the ethics around Ean’s experiments. Various figures voice differing degrees of concern, from Rossi’s conviction that Ean is an amoral madman to Helmo’s nervousness regarding cold jumps. It’s so interesting to see how Dunstall balances these moments. Even in situations when the plot would be more efficiently served by some handwaving and letting Ean get away with, say, monumental cold jumps, Dunstall often chooses the slower path. I was quite frustrated, sometimes, by the narrative’s unwillingness to just give the New Alliance the ability and comfort with cold jumping—but then again, that would make for a different book. I really applaud the way Dunstall doesn’t go for the low-hanging fruit but instead lays the groundwork for even better twists.
I love the way the characters disagree, confront each other, but reluctantly work together when necessary. We see this in Ean and Rossi, such polar opposites in so many ways. Rossi never misses a chance to get a dig in at Ean, who is becoming a little better at returning those serves; additionally, Rossi is quite vehement, even violent at times, in voicing his disapproval of how Ean is experimenting with the lines. Nevertheless, there are moments when Rossi backs up Ean or even gives him advice! Similarly, Radko finds help from unexpected quarters (no spoilers, but someone we know from Alliance!). Each character has their own strengths and flaws. Ean is a sublime level twelve linesman, but he is hopeless at politics and statecraft and knows it. So he can’t Mary Sue his way through the narrative; he can’t always get what he wants. (But he hopefully will get what he needs.)
The action scenes in this one are even stronger than the previous two. There’s so much happening here; the stories are so busy, but I was never confused about what was happening, where, or when. I don’t know how else to say this is except that I literally could not stop reading, could not wait to pick it up again when Real Life intervened (I intentionally waited until the weekend to read this so I could basically spend all of Saturday afternoon on it, stopping only to make dinner). There was one point where I literally leaned forward in my chair because I needed to read a scene faster lest it somehow escape from me.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: books are my drug. And when I find a good one, I mainline it until my supply runs dry. After discovering and devouring Linesman and Alliance in quick succession, I waited months for the release of Confluence. It met, maybe even exceeded, my expectations. Dunstall writes fun space opera with high stakes and awesome characters. I don’t really know what else to say. It sounds like they have more Linesman books planned but are writing a different space opera next. I’m down with that; I wish for more Linesman sooner rather than later, but I’m excited to see what they do next.
Now for the minor not-quite spoiler: as much as I shipped Ean and Rossi as frenemies, I totally ship Ean and Radko. They are so cute together.