Title: Weird Space: The Devil's Nebula
Author: Eric Brown
Publisher: Abaddon Books
Release Date: 29th May 2012
Reviewed by: Mark Chitty
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com
Starship Captain Ed Carew leads a carefree life of smuggling, gun-running and other illicit pursuits in a far future ruled by the fascistic Expansion Authority. But when an Expansion judiciary ship captures Carew leaving the planet of Hesperides, an out-of-bounds world now governed by the fearsome Vetch extraterrestrials, Carew and his crew are sentenced to death...
Unless they agree to travel through Vetch territory in pursuit of a human vessel that set off for the Devil’s Nebula one hundred years ago. Why are the Expansion authorities so eager to track down the ship? Will Carew and co. survive the journey through Vetch territory? And what might they find when they arrive at the Devil’s Nebula?
The Devil's Nebula is the first book in the new 'Weird Space' shared world series from Abaddon Books, and written by one of my favourite authors, Eric Brown. I've not read many shared world books before as I've never really seen the attraction of doing so - I much prefer to read a series from one author. As this is the first book in the Weird Space setting I was pleased to be able to jump on at the start, see what Brown would set up, and just how I would perceive it knowing it was to be the first of many in this setting and to be continued by different authors. But anyway, what did I think of The Devil's Nebula? Exactly what I expected - I enjoyed it.
There are two main threads in The Devil's Nebula. The first follows Ed, Lania, and Jed, the crew of the borderline illegal trading ship The Paradoxical Poet, as they attempt to acquire a statue from a once-human world now under the control of the Vetch. With the penalty for being found here certain death, the crew know that it's a risky mission, and that's before the Captain, Ed, reveals the other reason they are there. But all does not go smoothly, and after a tight confrontation with the Vetch they escape only to be caught by the human authorities. Fearing the worst, it comes as a surprise that they are offered a mission to what is believed to be a far-flung colony world settled in secret many years ago. With their choices limited there is really only one option, and it's this exploratory mission that makes up the bulk of the story.
The other plot thread focuses on Maatja, a young girl living on the World, a planet where the small human population lives under the control of the Weird, an alien species that appears to look after them. But Maatja has suspicions, and as events unfold she realises that the Weird aren't the good-natured aliens they show themselves to be. And when Ed, his crew, and the officials arrive on the World questions finally start being answered.
There were two main things I wanted from The Devil's Nebula before I started reading it. The first is obvious: a good story. With Eric Brown at the helm I knew that was pretty much a sure thing, and he didn't disappoint. The Devil's Nebula is firmly set in an SF setting, but it isn't hard SF, nor really space opera. The small crew of the Paradoxical Poet added a nice set of characters, while Maatja allowed the World to be seen in a different view to the one most of its inhabitants have. Brown manages to convey the sense of wrongness on the World, but it does feel one-sided. It's not a bad thing, though a point of view here and there from the other side might have helped to balance it out a little. The Weird match there name well, and while they are explored throughout the story (more towards the concluding chapters), further details could have given a deeper complexity to them.
One of the few aspects I felt was thoroughly under-developed was the relationship between humanity and the Vetch. After the early stages of the novel they seem to be pushed to one side, the threat they pose to humans not really looked at in detail, and after some of the early scenes and exposition about them that raises many questions, I felt a little short-changed regarding them.
Of course, all this relates to my second requirement from The Devil's Nebula: how well does it work as a shared setting? The answer is quite simple: very well. These little things that weren't developed thoroughly here can be looked at in greater detail in future novels. Having Brown firming up all details would have been a bad idea for the future writers of this series, so it's a sacrifice that I'm prepared to allow it for the sake of future stories. And the ending certainly opens up many possibilities there.
Overall I'd say The Devil's Nebula is a spot-on first novel in a shared setting. It delivers a good story, introduces the premise of the setting and the threats and dangers posed within it, but also works well as a stand-alone. I'll be very much looking forward to the next Weird Space novel, especially one written by another author just to see where they can take it, and with Eric Brown already signed up for another book in this setting (Satan's Reach, details here), I know that it'll be a series worth following.