A couple of disclaimers, provisos, quid pro quos, etcetera before I begin this piece: First, I was sent this as an ARC by the publisher in return for a
good honest review, although now that I’ve read it I’m going to spend my own actual money and buy a copy. Second, although there is literally no chance that either of us remembers it, Cat Rambo and I have probably met! You see, Cat used to work at The Griffon, a gaming shop in downtown South Bend (the second oldest such place in America, as it turns out) and I have been a semiregular customer there for roughly thirty-five years. I’m not sure what years Cat worked there or how often they worked when that was their job, but it’s hard to imagine either being especially long-term without us crossing paths at least once or twice, and The Griffon being the store it is, that probably means we’ve had an actual conversation or two. This isn’t going to affect my review, of course– you’re about to find out that this book has “Luther will like this” baked into the premise, pun fully intended– but it’s interesting.
The premise of this book has been described as “Farscape meets The Great British Baking Show,” and for many of you– certainly for me– that description may be salient enough to immediately attract attention. I can’t see a sci-fi book compared to my favorite TV show (seriously) and not immediately be interested in reading it. And the comparison isn’t unreasonable, either; while the majority of the characters used to be part of the same military unit, they are all retired and run a restaurant at the beginning of the book, and they have found themselves in a position where they may be eligible to earn the restaurant something called a Nikkelin Orb, which had me giggling from the moment I first saw the phrase. (If the joke escapes you, Google “Michelin Star,” or you could just click the link, I guess.)
Anyway, all hell breaks loose, and their restaurant gets blown up, and they sort of steal an expensive, intelligent bioship which immediately decides it’s been for-real stolen and starts to fly them off to a prison planet so that it can turn them in for stealing it, and then they discover that the Empress appears to have frozen one of her heirs and mailed her to them, and then things get even weirder, if you can believe that. The crew includes a chimp with a taste for explosives who only communicates via sign language, a hypersexual, polyamorous squid-thing, their four-armed, eight-foot master chef, a pastry chef who as near as I can tell is a more selfish & predatory version of Big Bird, and two twin were-lions.
So the characters are great, and the way they interact is great, and the hints at wider worldbuilding from what parts of this world we get to see are fantastic (I want more books in this series, and I want them now,) and my only real gripe is actually that the book could have been maybe 50-75 pages longer, as some story points get kind of glossed over quickly, to the point where occasionally I had to stop and reread a page to make sure that what I thought had just happened had actually happened in, like, a sentence and not an entire chapter. Rambo manages to deftly balance a light, Douglas-Adamsesque comedic tone for decent chunks of the book with a villain who ends up pretty genuinely terrifying and some moments of real sadness and pathos. I just wanted more of it, and at 285 or so pages this is a pretty quick read. I feel like it wouldn’t have outstayed its welcome at 350-400 pages, but I’ll trade a shorter book for future sequels if I absolutely have to.
One way or another, this is definitely something I’m going to recommend, and I can easily imagine myself mentioning it again in a week and a half or so when I put my best-of list together for this year. Go check it out.