GlowGems For Profit
By Dr. Bruce Davis
Once again disclosure, I happen to be a friend of Dr. Davis' eldest son and I'm on pretty good terms with the good doctor. In fact he gave me a discount on this book at Phoenix Comic Con provided I do a review (here we are Doc!) on it. In fact he autographed it for me! I bought 2 other books by him that I will review before to long I think. Everything I write in this review is my honest opinion but as always be aware.
A recurring theme in science fiction, especially when writers wish to step away from great epic events or show casing super clean utopias, is that of a small ship operating on the edges and in the cracks of civilized space lead by rough charismatic men and their strangely loyal crews. Although these men are often caught up in epic events, they are often envisioned as people who don't walk the halls of power or play in the elite levels of society. These are men like Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds, men with pasts, with skills, friends and most importantly men with ships. The law weighs fairly lightly on these men and their ships and they get what you want to where you want for a price. Morality may weigh a bit more on our Captains, but often not by much. These stories have carved out their own niche in science fiction (and with books like the Black Lung Captain in steam punk fantasy as well).
Here Dr. Davis throws his hat into the ring with Glowgems for Profit which introduces us to Zack Mbele, former revolutionary, military officer, prisoner and human lab experiment. As is the usual, Captain Mbele's side lost the war, interestingly enough it's a good thing for Captain Mbele that his side lost. He had ended up on the wrong side of a political purge during a Glorious People's Revolution on Mars, which as Glorious People's Revolutions tend to do, had fallen to eating it's own young (although doing it before the war is won is usually a bad idea. Even Mao and Pol Pot waited to win the war before starting their lunatic murder sprees). It was during that name that Mbele was subjected to all manner of cruel and unusual experiments mostly having to do with nanotechnology. He survived and got a gift out of it. Most people just died. The origin is on par for the course honestly, what's really interesting is that while Mbele is given science fiction superpowers (with NANOMACHINES SON!) they play at best a minor role in the story. This story is not about Captain Mbele's nano powers and these nano powers don't play much of a role in solving his problems. Which is to the stories credit here. That said they do give him an edge in a gun fight but a lot of his problems in the story can't be solved by gun fights. Not to mention some of those gun fights are only won because Captain Mbele follows the rules of gunfights (shot first, bring friends, tell your friends to bring guns, if possible have them bring friends with guns). Mbele is our viewpoint character and our Captain Reynolds for the book if I may be so bold. He's scummier then Captain Reynolds, which most of the novel captains are (novel writers not having studio execs pushing them to make the characters cleaner for one thing), he's also more broken by his experience. He's turned to drug use and booze and that leads him to be somewhat erratic. I may be understating the case by a wide margin there, as Mbele will repeatedly make decisions in the story that lead you to question how the hell does he manage to survive taking a shower let alone being a ship Captain. On the flip side when someone is shooting him he makes rather inspired and rational decisions that keep everyone alive. So while I'll ask why the hell Mbele is still alive from time to time I am reminded fairly often why he's the Captain. It's just his decision making is addled by his unhealthy habits which are spurred on by his frankly ruined mental state.
Freed after the war by the Federal government of Earth, who stormed the prison after the glorious revolution failed, Mbele finds himself with a ship and a crew made up of an A.I named Sylvia and Deuce (said friend with gun), a Sgt in Mbele's old unit who decided to stick with his Lt after the war was over. There's not much to say about Deuce, he's a very quiet character content to follow Mbele's decisions no matter how questionable they get. His main role is to show up with a large rifle and shot things or threaten to shot things. I'm hoping for more character development later in the series.
The story is set within the boundaries of our own solar system, only one that has been fully populated by what I assume was one hell of a colonization effort. As we can guess Captain Mbele prefers to hang out in the outer edges of the solar system where the law is weakest and the questions are fewest. In the beginning of the book he is lured to the inner system, to Earth's very orbit by an old friend, a fellow veteran of the revolution and cellmate who goes by the name Rabbit. Rabbit went through the same experiments but was left a cripple trapped in a wheel chair and with a double handful of social and mental problems. Dr. Davis does display this real well, in that these mental and social handicaps aren't just things that rabbit can get over when he wants to or just bad habits, they are real compulsions (frankly this isn't the right word either) born of trauma and drastic injury that imprison Rabbit as surely as his wheel chair does. These are also pretty well written, Rabbit is paranoid and given to odd flights of fancy. He rambles uncontrollably when asked questions. He can't help these behaviors and while the story as told from Captain Mbele's viewpoint doesn't rub our faces in that behavior, it lets us know it's there. In short Rabbit feels like a real person who has been damaged instead of a Hollywood damaged in incredibly convenient ways characters. For those wondering, no I'm not going to stop taking pot shots in these reviews.
Of course Rabbit is also a computer hacker beyond the understanding of us lowly mortals, having been a member of the Glorious Revolutions cyberwarfare Divisions and like Captain Mbele ended up purge. Rabbit has a lot more of a character then Deuce does and serves a vitally more important role in this story. Rabbit isn't just Captain Mbele's friend or the guy who clued him into a job, he's Captain Mbele's moral compass. When Captain Mbele has a moral qualm, it centers on his relationship with Rabbit. The promises he made to him, his behavior towards him, etc. The fact that Captain Mbele works so hard to shield Rabbit from harm and tolerates behavior from Rabbit that most of us wouldn't helps humanize Captain Mbele and for me at least makes him bearable because without this relationship Captain Mbele would seem like a giant self aggrandizing drugged up dick. Part of that is the next person we're going to discuss.
Cleopatra Jones is a hot, sneaky, killer of a woman with a shadowed past and questionable goals. That's putting it nicely, when we meet her she's shooting at the man trying to hire Captain Mbele. Despite this... Rocky start, Mbele decides to bring on to his ship and to be blunt trusts her more then the guy paying him money. While this does pan out in the story, barely I can't for the life of me see why Mbele would do this beyond well thinking with his pants. I do like Cleo Jones, she's fairly interesting although I think she could use more development. I mean where did she get her training? Why is she out in the outer rim doing low grade hits and body guarding? What's going on here? What I didn't care for was Captain Mbele's reaction to her. I've seen it before, where a guy basically leads with his crotch and it never ends well. Frankly I kinda lost a bit of respect for the character. On the flip side I do think that was what Doc. Davis was aiming for. I also kinda found Cleo and Mbele's relationship to veer from possibly helpful to dangerously toxic. On the one hand, she's pushing him to get off drugs and stay sober. On the other hand she encourages his reckless streak and some of his self destructive behavior. This is not a fairy tale relationship that magically redeems both parties. It's two very damaged, very bad people getting into bed with each (literally) and that relationship while having some positive effects is feeding their bad behaviors. Which is realistic, I got to give the Doc that. I'm not sure how I feel about Cleopatra Jones outside of her relationship to Captain Mbele, as we're presented with her pretty much entirely in that context. This is mainly because we only get Captain Mbele's as our viewpoint character which means everything is filtered through his perspective.
The bad guys are fairly interesting, in that you have the remains of the glorious people's revolution, stripped of all political pretension just preying on people with their skills and remaining hardware. You have a large nasty drug gang trying to diversify it's holding, which is actually kinda ripped from the headlines stuff. I mean I've been reading about Mexican cartels branching out into stealing coal mines and farms for Heaven's sake. Captain Mbele is fairly fearless and brazen when dealing with them as well, which is fun to read honestly. I actually enjoy the parts where he deals with people he considers his enemies more then I do the parts where he deals with his allies. Plus I respect a man who's willing to talk shit to the leader of the biggest meanest cartel in the outer solar system. That said the villains aren't given a lot of development and a couple of them are left rather flat by that. I felt some more work could have been done here.
The plot itself is really well done. It's twisty and turns fairly quickly and has the good grace not to get to impressed with itself and move on fairly quickly. It turns on the lies and evasions of Cleopatra Jones and the man who hired Captain Mbele in the first place and of course there is a lot of money at stake. The world (system?) isn't in danger though so Captain Mbele is in no danger of being turned into a hero... Although he does manage to act almost heroically by the end of the book. There are several shoot outs that are well done as well. I should note that this book is noticeable more violent then Queen Mab Courtesy, which Doc Davis wrote later on. The violence is well written which I like and avoids being overly analysis. We also get a good variety with gun fights, some melee fights and some violence on a star ship scale. The characters are realistic, deeply flawed and damaged people who often display poor decision making skills... Which if we're going to be honest is what you expect from people who decided breaking the law was a good career path. Which to be honest is part of the issue. I'm one of the people who didn't like Breaking Bad because constantly watching flawed damaged people screwing up doesn't appeal to me. I will say at Captain Mbele tries to rise above himself in this story and I'm left with enough good feelings to come back for the sequel.
Glow Gems for Profit gets a B. It's a good book, especially if you enjoy the genre. If you don't have my hang ups regarding character traits you'll enjoy a lot more then I did. That said I enjoyed it quite a bit. Now hopefully Dr. Davis explains just what the hell Cleopatra Jones deal is in the next book.
That said next review we return to Warp World!