Void Black Shadow, Corey J. White (Tor.com Publishing 978-0–7653-9692-1, $3.99, 218pp, eb). March 2018. Cover by Tommy Arnold.
Void Black Shadow, the sequel to Corey J. White’s explosive Killing Gravity and the second volume in the Voidwitch Saga, isn’t what you might call measured, not by a long chalk. Hectic is one word for it. Breakneck another.
Mariam “Mars” Xi is a living weapon, a “voidwitch.” A genetically designed psychic created by a giant, unaccountable corporation/programme called MEPHISTO, her bodycount numbers in the tens of thousands. All she wants is to be left alone to live her life on her own terms – and to be nobody’s weapon – but MEPHISTO won’t leave her be.
The last time they came for her, they took one of her friends. Mars feels responsible for Mookie’s capture and disappearance. She’s determined to get him back for his friends, the ship captain Squid and the mercenary Trix – who was Mookie’s lover. The force doesn’t yet exist that can stop a voidwitch with Mars’s power when she decides to destroy things. But Mars’ problem is that rescuing a prisoner from an undisclosed location will require finesse.
For all her raw power and force, Mars is a bit lacking when it comes to finesse, so her cunning plan for rescuing Mookie is to get herself captured and sent to the maximum-security prison where she’s learned that Mookie is being held, and then break both of them out with her immense psychic voidwitch powers – without getting Mookie either horribly broken or killed.
This works out about as well as you might imagine. Which is to say it doesn’t work out that well at all.
White evokes a prison environment and its routines terrifyingly well. The dehumanising destruction – attempted or successful – of individuality, autonomy, and resistance to authority is depicted with chilling intensity, but the tension that White’s trying to create – fear for Mars, and worry about Mookie – doesn’t really ever come into proper focus. That’s in part because of Mars’s emotional isolation as a character and the brevity with which other characters are sketched, and in part because Mars is functionally invulnerable.
Mars is a caustically sarcastic character, with a thick layer of emotional armour between her and everyone else, except for her pet, Ocho, a creature that regenerates like a phoenix when killed and looks (and acts) like a cross between a cat, a bat, and a monkey, and whose species is only ever given as “pet.” Mars leaves Ocho behind in order to go undercover in a prison, leaving her previous shallow emotional relationships with other people on the outside too, and doesn’t really form new connections to new people within the prison environment – unless you count her hate for the chief prison warden/torturer, Ratham. It’s hard to really feel invested in Mars’s rescue of Mookie, or in Mookie’s fate, when Mookie is more of a person-shaped McGuffin in the narrative than a character in his own right.
Because Mars is functionally invulnerable – because her powers mean that she can protect herself from pretty much anything, and because everything that happens directly to her inside the prison is something that she’s essentially allowed to happen – she’s frictionless. Without other well-developed characters with whom the reader can feel a connection, and for whom we can develop and emotional attachment, Void Black Shadow feels as though it lacks risk and tension. Mars has a great voice, and she’s fun to watch – but if I’m not convinced by the depth of her investment in Mookie, and if I have no real sense of investment in the other characters myself, there are no real stakes in the narrative. There’s nothing serious at risk.
This is a peculiar feeling to have about a book in which a mind-linked Legion of augmented humans (connected through a hive mind) are hunting our heroine, a book in which whole orbital installations are destroyed and secret information-storage depots are infiltrated, a book in which our heroine is trying to pull off a prison break.
That’s not to say that Void Black Shadow isn’t fun. Its breakneck pace whirls the reader along, hurling you over all the obstacles, and throwing you right in the middle of some damn cool shit. Mars is a compelling narrator, dry and funny and intense by turns, and her growing sense of moral doubt over just how justified her bodycount is makes for an interesting personal conundrum. It’s fun, all right: entertaining as all hell. But it’s also shallow, and I was hoping for just a bit more depth.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the March 2018 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.