Before she escaped in a bloody coup, MEPHISTO transformed Mariam Xi into a deadly voidwitch. Their training left her with terrifying capabilities, a fierce sense of independence, a deficit of trust, and an experimental pet named Seven. She’s spent her life on the run, but the boogeymen from her past are catching up with her. An encounter with a bounty hunter has left her hanging helpless in a dying spaceship, dependent on the mercy of strangers.
Penned in on all sides, Mariam chases rumors to find the one who sold her out. To discover the truth and defeat her pursuers, she’ll have to stare into the abyss and find the secrets of her past, her future, and her terrifying potential.
Child soldiers, kids turned into psychic weapons, found families, government conspiracies? We’ve seen all this before hundreds of times, perhaps most notably in Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Corey J. White’s Killing Gravity is another entry into this long tradition: so, what does it bring to the field?
Killing Gravity‘s great strength is its voices. Despite the fact that almost every character is of a type we’ve met before – the friendly soldier who went AWOL, the extremely unfriendly and violent merc (female, in this case, though that’s becoming less rare), the AIs with a slightly warped approach to the world, and the psychic who was experimented on by the government to make her into a weapon – this isn’t a book where are two-dimensional or simple archetypes without any flesh on that bare bone framework. White not only gives each one a distinctive cadence and approach to the world, but distinctive mannerisms too, which very rapidly establish their characterisation. This is most obvious with the way Mars pushes people away and struggles with herself, but even supporting characters like Trix’s violence and her anger at the world and the situation she’s in. Where Killing Gravity does break free of archetypes a bit more is in the captain, Squid; they are calm, meditative, open, and rather fascinating in their whole characterisation. They’re also genderqueer, something that the book never really makes a big deal of and just allows to be a thing that is unremarkable.
The plot of Killing Gravity isn’t so strong: if you’ve seen Serenity, you already know it, really. A supersecret research group engineered girls to be psychic warrior-witches, and one escaped; inevitably, the group wants to track her down and recapture her. White’s story is concerned with that; it starts in media res, in the immediate wake of an attempt to capture Mars, and plays out the consequences of that attempt and the experiments done to Mars. It’s not a flashy story in that regard, but what White does do is give it some emotional resonance, with Mars’ original liberator, and with the family she finds along the way. That’s slightly let down at the very close of the novella: any sense of resolution is undermined by White’s determination to set up a sequel in the most obvious and inevitable way possible. While it fits with what’s gone before, the heavy-handedness of it still frustrates.
Killing Gravity doesn’t have the most complex plot, and White matches it to simple writing style; this is a breeze to get through, a very quick read. That isn’t to say the prose is bad; far from it. The simplicity of the prose, and the way White lets it do its thing without adding layers of complexity of verbosity to it, means there’s nothing coming between reader and characters. This is especially true of action sequences, which are fast paced, bloody, and visceral. White doesn’t shy away from the emotional consequences of action sequences, and wounds actually mean something in the novella, but the cinematic nature of the action is what we’re really here for: this feels at times like it was written for adaptation onto the big screen, with its sweeping vistas, weird visuals, and pitched battles.
In the end, Killing Gravity isn’t doing anything new in the genre; that’s not where its strength lies. Instead, White’s skill is in doing things we’ve seen before, and doing them very well indeed. I could wish for a more original plot, though…
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