Gabino Iglesias Reviews The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown

The Scourge Between Stars, Ness Brown (Night­fire 978-1-2508-3468-3, $16.99, 176pp, tp) April 2023.

Ness Brown’s The Scourge Between Stars is a perfect blend of science fiction and horror that has enough elements of each to fully satisfy lovers of both. Short, fast, engag­ing, wildly entertaining, and unexpectedly gory, it almost demands to be devoured in one sitting, but packs more than pulpy entertainment and alien forms spilling guts across a doomed ship.

Jacklyn Albright has more of less been pushed into the role of captain of the starship Calypso because her father, the original captain, is locked in his room and refuses to come out or even com­municate through the door. As captain, Jacklyn, who most people call Jack, has her hands full: they are hurtling through space as humanity’s last hope, but the Calypso has taken a beating, their resources are dangerously low, they have no clue how to proceed and get back to Earth after their predeces­sors failed to establish a colony elsewhere, and the ship’s thousands of inhabitants are getting restless. However, all those problems, serious as they are, get pushed aside when a new priority emerges: something has gotten inside the Calypso, and the intruder is brutally murdering and eviscerating members of the crew. Survival was already shaky, but if Jack wants the Calypso and its people to have even a slight chance of making it, they first have to hunt down whatever is hunting them down.

There are several science fiction novels that flirt with horror, but The Scourge Between Stars fully embraces it and revels in the gory, creepy, dark violence the genre is capable of bringing to the table. The first half of the book is more or less pure science fiction. It deals with Jack’s conundrum, sets the scene for what the Calypso is going through, and briefly introduces most characters and shows the relationships between them, including roman­tic ones. Then Jack starts hearing banging noises behind the ship’s walls, and things start to get a little eerie. When the first eviscerated body shows up, the narrative retains everything Brown had set in place while simultaneously revving the horror engine at its core. The result is an explosion of bodies (and body parts), blood, huge creatures in the dark, running around while trying to stay alive. If the first half is fun and engaging, the second half is an absolute blast that shows just how great Brown is at building tension and using economy of language to make their story punch harder.

I finished reading this book the day the final ballot for the Bram Stoker Awards was announced. The Stoker’s ballot is full of women, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC writers, and that felt like a perfect com­panion for this novel. That The Scourge Between Stars is full of diverse characters is obvious from its great cover, which features a Black woman with braids who we can assume is Jack. However, it goes deeper than that. Jack and others are members of the LGBTQ+ community. They are presented like any characters would be, and that drives an impor­tant point home: BIPOC and LGBTQ+ characters should be part of narratives not because we’re try­ing to force diversity onto the page, they should be part of narratives because we are everywhere, and our presence adds a degree to truth to any story.

There are several great sci-fi horror films whose DNA is present in The Scourge Between Stars. Chief among them are two personal favorites, the Alien franchise (the aliens, the bloodshed, the kickass heroine) and Event Horizon (missing ships, a relentless sense of dread, unclear audio messages from other ships). However, this story is entirely Brown’s and feels like a breath of fresh air. Also, coming in at 176 pages, one gets the sense that it could’ve been longer, but that the pacing and action demanded a quick read that would leave readers wanting more, and that’s something Brown pulls off beautifully here.

The Scourge Between Stars joins recent books like S.A. Barnes’s Dead Silence, Caitlin Starling’s The Luminous Dead, and Edward Ashton’s Mickey7 to – hopefully! – confirm that there is a resurgence of space horror. Let’s hope it continues, and make sure you read this one and preorder whatever Brown publishes next the moment it is announced.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

This review and more like it in the April 2023 issue of Locus.

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