By Colette Black
Like Fourteen, I picked up Noble Ark at Comicfest 2018 in Phoenix. I've already discussed that and our author in that review that was all of two weeks ago, so let's just into it.
In the far future, humanity has fled Earth and settled on the planet Saeana. They rebuilt civilization and branched outward meeting a number of alien species, engaging in trade and diplomatic relations with most of them. However, things went bad when the Mwalgi, depending on who you believe, either started attacking humans for their Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) or asked the government of Saeana for CSF and started attacking when their request was refused. In the twenty years since, marauding Mwalgi pirates have hunted human merchants ships across the civilized systems. When they find a human ship, they attack, board it and kill everyone they find by draining them dry of CSF (WHY!? Seriously why!? These are advanced space-faring aliens, surely they have discovered the miracle of genetically modified bacteria that are capable of making human CSF in mass production vats like we do fucking insulin!). Among the victims of these bluntly brutal attacks were the family of Aline Taylor our main character, but let's talk about the Mwalgi and the war first.
The Mwalgi have a number of physical advantages. They are stronger and tougher than human beings, have fangs and built in talons capable of cutting through a wide variety of materials. On top of that their skins are covered by heavy scales that are even resistant against a great number of the weapons humanity possess. The Mwalgi appear to avoid large scale attacks and confronting human military ships, at the same time it seems that the human fleet isn't strong enough to attack the Mwalgi home world. So human merchant ships have become the main field of battle. A series of agreements enforced by a number of other alien races forces the Mwalgi to limit themselves to single ship raids on merchants and to not attack humans in certain areas marked off limits. The details aren't gone into, but from what is said, it seems the other aliens were mostly interested in keeping the war off their territory and ships while maintaining the benefits of trade with humanity and not having to get involved (... What the fuck? No, seriously what the fuck? “Well Mwalgi, we can’t have you draining ALL the humans, we like their trinkets. So we’re only going to let you drain still-living fellow sapient beings of their CSF under sustainable harvest quotas”.) The war was frankly bloody but humanity has managed to slowly shift the tide through series of social, tactical, and technological adaptations. First is the creation of private military contractors, who actually serve as training beds for the military as well a good place to stick a junior officer you want to gain combat experience rapidly. They deploy aboard human merchant ships which are now built on vast scales to make carrying large crews profitable. Humans have also adapted tactics to draw Mwalgi, who are often driven half mad by the scent of humans into prepared ambush zones, with the ships themselves being built according to these tactics. Lastly is the adoption of acid guns, by which I don't mean ‘melt your bones’ acid but something closely related to the drug Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, aka LSD. The weapons in question fire pellets or darts small and sharp enough to penetrate the scales of a Mwalgi killer. While if you or I (I assume that all my audience is human) would experience a hallucinogenic trip if we were hit, the chemicals are nearly instantly toxic to the Mwalgi resulting in a painful and messy death. For bonus points they even figured out how to configure the acid guns into pretty good melee weapons for when you run out of ammo. So the killing doesn't have to stop simply because there's more Mwalgi then you have acid. Which as you can imagine suits most humans just fine.
Aline Taylor is definitely one of those humans, as I mentioned earlier she lost her entire family in a particularly violent Mwalgi assault that she witnessed at a young age (Holy PTSD, Batman!). This left her with a pathological (No no, it is entirely justified and normal. Granted it is also probably PTSD...) hatred of the Mwalgi and a desire to make killing them her life's work. She's gotten off to a good start having focused on making a military career with the kind of obsessive focus you don't see in sane people. However she's too young to get into the military academy and rather then calmly wait for nature to take its course, she's looking to force her way in. Preferably by creating a vast ramp of Mwalgi corpses to walk over to the admissions board. I have to admit I admire her focus on a certain level even if I'm a bit terrified by her laundry list of psychological issues. To Ms. Black's credit, she doesn't spend a lot of time dressing up Aline as some sort of perfect soldier, but as a damaged and in some ways frail individual who happens to be pretty good at xenocide. That said I wouldn't bring someone like Aline into the field if I had any choice in the matter, since people like that eventually break and tend to do so in an very dramatic fashion (There is that, yes). Until she faces her issues and comes to terms with them, she's basically a time bomb only the timer doesn't have numbers on it, it has animals and you have to figure out if she'll explode at half past octopus or a quarter to sparrow. Again Ms. Black confronts this by having her authority figures be painfully aware of this and constantly pushing Aline to do healthy things, like have non-murder hobbies and get therapy, with actual therapists (I’d recommend MDMA assisted psychotherapy and ALL the anti-depressants!). Course our next main character is going to force the issue by virtue of his existence, let's talk about him.
Larkin Travgar is a Mwalgi, sort of. He claims to have a Saeana mother and a Mwalgi father, which makes him half human. Now as my editor will explain, in painful depth if I let him, this is impossible (*Screams into the void*). The medical and science characters of the book agree with this being impossible, pointing out that the Mwalgi evolved on an alien world and even have a different number of chromosome pairs then humans (Okay, that doesn’t even scratch the surface. Different chromosome pairs might not even be that bad provided there is at least one copy and no recessive lethals that get unmasked by only having the one copy. No no. The problem comes in gene regulation, particularly in morphogenesis, and nuclear-mitochondrial incompatibilities that make cellular respiration impossible.) All that said, Larkin, or Lars for short, exists and clearly combines human and Mwalgi physical characteristics. This isn't explained in the book, but given that it's the first book of a series, I'm willing to give that a pass. While I demand a complete story, that doesn't mean you have to explain everything, some plot elements can be left to be resolved in future books. Due to his hybrid nature, Lars doesn't crave CSF but was drafted by his government and basically thrown onto a pirate ship and told to murder people. He instead saves Aline during a raid and murders a bunch of his own crew members. This leads to an awkward situation, as Aline hates Lars due to him being... Well Mwalgi but admits that she owes him her life and has a debt. So she repeatedly puts herself on the line to ensure Lars fair and just treatment despite her dislike of him. It doesn't help that Lars is a very likable sort on his own, he's honestly more mature then Aline, fair minded and even charming in his own rough way. Which sets us up for the main conflict of the book... The love triangle.
The love triangle (well to be fair it's not a triangle but I'll get into that) involves a third character, David Blake. Blake is pretty, charming, an accomplished soldier with the private contractors and from a wealthy and powerful military family. David Blake is also utterly toxic as a person, being a manipulative, controlling, entitled little shit of a man. This is illustrated in his relationship with Yone, another crew member who has the bad taste to fall in love with David. He's perfectly happy to use Yone’s talents to try and manipulate Aline and when Aline isn't available he's perfectly happy to sleep with Yone, all while giving Aline the impression that he wants an exclusive relationship with her.
Meanwhile Lars is undergoing a physical change as he starts basically imprinting on Aline, as the Mwalgi have physiological process that basically lock them into a single monogamous relationship for life. I'll come back to that but the takeaway is that Lars is in love with Aline. Aline is somewhat confused as she has a mountain of hate, fear and resentment for Lars’ species, but Lars himself is attractive to her. This puts Lars into the archetype of the monster boyfriend, other examples are Edward Cullen (or Jacob) from Twilight, Beast from Beauty and the Beast (so many versions that I don't have time to list them) and you've likely thought of half a dozen examples by now yourself, gentle reader. To be honest most of the monster girlfriend characters I've run into are from Japanese sources, either books or anime (Ryoko from the grandfather of all harem anime Tenchi Muyo comes to mind). Basically the Monster boy/girlfriend is physically powerful (often supernaturally so) and dangerous, often with fangs, talons or claws to serve as an example of their dangerousness. They are usually from a larger group that are considered predatory towards normal humans (vampires, werewolves, aliens who drink our spinal fluid, you get the idea) but this specific individual is either through voluntarily means or outside circumstances rendered safe for the hero or heroine. They are also usually shown as devoted beyond the human norm to their human love interest to the point of fighting a large list of dangerous enemies for the safety and well being of their human love interest. Most of the time, the human love interest is rendered helpless, in order to highlight the power and savagery that the monster boy/girlfriend is capable of. I will say that Aline is a better protagonist than most, being a capable and accomplished fighter, willing and able to pursue her own agenda. So bonus points there. Additionally, there are a wide number of situations in the book that would normally result in angst and drama that are solved by people talking out their problems like adults. Unless it involves David, who for pretty much the vast majority of the book makes such a pain of himself that I find myself asking what most of the other characters are asking, what the hell does Aline see in him beyond his pretty face and officer tabs? I'm not a fan of love triangles as the main plot honestly and in this case I was more interested in the war and exploring the societies of the humans and Mwalgi that have formed in response to a two-decade struggle for survival. David doesn't help this, as frankly the best love triangles are ones where you can at least see the virtues in everyone involved and realize why this is a difficult choice. In this, you're just waiting for David to screw up badly enough that Aline realizes what he is and gives him the boot.
My big struggle this review is objectively reviewing a book that tells a story other then the one I want. That's not Ms. Black fault. There are plenty of readers who would roll their eyes at any story I would write in this universe of hers and would vastly prefer her own work. The world building is interesting, although Ms. Black does attempt several time to make the struggle between humans and Mwalgi morally grey by suggesting that the human government was approached peacefully to provide CSF to the Mwalgi but refused. So the Mwalgi marched to war. The problem here is that after discussing this with several biologist I know... Well first while there are differences in the CSF of us and say... cows? They're not huge differences. Second, any chemical in CSF can be created in a lab, in large amounts. So while the Mwalgi might not have the technology to do so (technology that I am assured that 21st century earth has) there are plenty of other alien powers out there that do (Including us! You go up to any government asking if you can harvest their citizens they’ll say no. Ask if that government can make something to sell you? Sure!). So why hasn't anyone tried to tap this vast market and reap the economic and political benefits of having Mwalgi in hock to them? Why haven't the Mwalgi pursued this technology? Why would I believe that anyone has a right to my spinal fluid and why would I feel bad for people who will murder children violently for it? Given that there are two other books in the series that likely have those answers I don't want to throw too many rocks there. As it is possible that those questions are answered in those books. But it does undercut a lot of the good work she did in worldbuilding here. Because as long as you can accept the premise of alien pirates coming for our precious bodily fluids, everything else makes sense and is great work! The LSD guns are incredibly imaginative and I love the idea. The small touches of life in a merchant ship built to serve as a death trap to invading aliens are very well done. The characters are very believable as functional adults, they talk out their problems, they plan ahead, etc. So I'm just going to say if you're a fan of monster boy or girlfriends and of romances with love triangles, then this book is likely for you. If you're not? Skip this one. I'm giving Noble Ark by Colette Black a C+, but if you're into the plot I've outlined, then it's going to reach up into the B tier.
You know, I think it's time to break out the big guns of independent authors. Next week, Brute Force by K.B. Spangler. Keep reading!
As always red text is your editor Dr. Ben Allen
Black text is your reviewer Garvin Anders.