Review of Linesman by S.K. Dunstall
by S.K. Dunstall
Ah, it’s so nice when a book blows you away with how awesome it is. I was hoping I’d like Linesman, but I didn’t anticipate loving it so much. But sister act Sherylyn and Karen Dunstall have managed to create an original, exciting new entry in the space opera subgenre. If you like space opera, SF with a psychic twist, or whiny people getting their comeuppance, you should read this book. So let’s not waste any more time and get into explaining why!
Ean Lambert is a certified ten—which is not to say he’s good looking. Rather, he’s the highest level of linesman. Think of linesmen as Jedis who use their Force powers to fix ships instead of having impractical lightsaber battles. Lines, numbered from one to ten, are energy constructs that humanity uses to facilitate their spaceship operations, including, crucially, faster-than-light travel. No one is really sure what lines are; as with many innovations, we just sort of stumbled onto the secret of making them. Most linesmen “push and pull” lines psychically—again, no one is really sure how that works. Ean is an outsider, both in terms of his social background and how his initially self-taught linesmen skills mean he must sing to the lines. To other tens, he is a dangerous imposter of a linesman.
Anyway, to make a long story short: Ean gets caught up in interstellar brinkmanship far beyond his pay grade. At first he’s not happy, but he quickly comes to enjoy his new situation to an extent, because at the very least it’s proving challenging—and someone is actually appreciating him. After years of being shit on for not fitting in, a few people are paying attention to what he can actually do. So everything is looking up for Ean—you know, if you ignore the people trying to kidnap him, kill him, seize control of a strange alien ship before he does … the usual.
The stakes Linesman are high. Dunstall thrusts us into a human society on the brink of war. The universe reminds me a little of Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, with a few consolidated powers loosely controlling a vast array of planets, united by a fragile FTL MacGuffin (wormholes in Vorkosigan, carefully-scheduled “gating” in this book to avoid mishaps). Linesman is also like the Vorkosigan books in that it’s not precisely military SF, but it's military SF adjacent. The relationship between Abram and Michelle, for instance, reminds me a little of the relationship between some Barrayaran military generals and people like Cordelia or Miles. They are both very strategic people with slightly different specialties and occasionally different priorities (Abram wants to protect Michelle, even if she’s not in the mood to be protected).
Dunstall neatly balances Ean’s acumen. He’s not a completely blank slate, but he has largely eschewed politics until now. He has a history with Lancia (Michelle’s faction), having grown up in poverty there and escaped it only because of his skill with the lines. So it’s ironic that he ends up working for them, not just because Michelle buys his contract but because he starts to like them. This sense of humour and playfulness pervades the book and helps to take the edge off what is otherwise a very tense situation.
In addition to following Ean, some chapters follow Jordan Rossi, a more conventional ten. I like this perspective, both on galactic politics and on linesmen’s place in the power structure. Between Jordan and Ean we get a good sense of how linesmen work with the lines—but it’s clear that there is so much more out there that Dunstall have yet to reveal. I love how they gradually dole out that knowledge: at the start of the book, the uses of lines seven and eight are unknown. Ean discovers what line eight does, and he also makes a few other discoveries I won’t spoil here. But the book ends with Ean interrogating line seven about what it does—a mild cliffhanger, perhaps, but a cliffhanger nonetheless. I was well annoyed when I read that last page!
And I so very much want to read Alliance! I have already checked; my library has two copies—one is on hold, so I’m not the only person in Thunder Bay who is enjoying this series. There’s just something so smooth and enjoyable about Dunstall’s writing. Dunstall manages the scope necessary for space opera without forgetting about having great characters. Much like in the paradigm case of Dune, learning about the wider galactic society is an important part of Linesman, but it is secondary to the main plots.
Finally, this story has a wealth of secondary characters who make it so much better. In general, Dunstall gives us a bunch of interesting women in all sorts of roles. Michelle, although royalty, is not your typical princess, and on the opposite side of the political board we get Admiral Orsaya. Rebekah Grimes shares Michelle’s penchant for scheming, while Admiral Katida puts the moves on Ean shamelessly. The best for last, though: Radko, assigned to Ean as a kind of orderly/babysitter while he is aboard, proves essential in so many respects. Not only does she offer physical protection and training, but she is a wellspring of psychological reassurance and support in a way that surprises both of them. I love that Linesman has so many great female characters. Moreover, there were some good, casual comments about fashion and how it has changed since our present day—we’ve got some tight-fitting tops and tights that are all the rage among men as well as women. (Little bit of fat-shaming on Ean’s part, though.) It’s all very subtle but it’s also important to acknowledge.
Of course just as women have always fought, women have always written science fiction. But if any poor, deluded sod was under the impression that women don’t write good military science fiction, Linesman is just another counterexample. This is an awesome new entry into the field; it has excited me about space opera in ways I was not expecting. If you want to feel that, then you got to get a piece of this action.