John Appel, Assassin’s Orbit. Rebellion Publishing, 2021. Pp. 400. ISBN 978-1-78108-915-6. $11.99/£8.99.
Reviewed by M.L. Clark
If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, The Expanse series has a lot to be flattered by in John Appel’s Assassin’s Orbit, a work of mid-flung-future space opera involving multiple perspectives brought together by a mysterious case verging on interstellar incident. The book was even promoted as “The Golden Girls meets The Expanse,” a tagline that intrigued this reviewer, but unfortunately yielded disappointment when it turned out that the “Golden Girls” component was simply… having three major POV characters be older women. (I’d like to see someone try to call The Expanse’s Chrisjen Avasarala a “Golden Girl” simply because of her age.) Appel’s characterization of these women as women falls into tired territory at times, but if you put aside the marketing—and indeed, the whole Golden Girls reference entirely—the characters are still solid, sensible actors moving through a confidently-paced political intrigue.
Assassin’s Orbit is at its best as a work operating in similar territory to Leviathan Wakes (minus the extra-solar elements, but with a bio-political conspiracy of its own), and thinking deeply about the mechanics of society-building in space. On Ileri Station, the murder of someone near and dear to Noo Okoreke, head of a consulting firm (our private-eye character, in other words, minus the fedora), leads her to suspect a threat to interplanetary security ahead of key talks and a potential referendum for the region’s powerhouses. She and the deceased’s sister, Fari, lend their services to the station constabulary, headed up by Nnenna Toiwa, who is trying to cull corruption in the ranks while keeping anti-Commonwealth sentiment from exploding into full-on station riots among One Worlder activists. From the Commonwealth side, we get Meiko Ogawa, a spy being pushed into retirement after a frustrating mission, who has this one last assignment on the station—and with it, an opportunity to help keep what might very well be a bio-political disaster involving two system republics at bay.
Other key characters show up later—Josephine Okafor, a blind infonet security specialist; Maria Zheng, of the constabulary; a third of the way in, Captain Nia Andini, of another republic, and sent to investigate the possible bio-security threat; and well over two-thirds through, Daniel Imoke, last-minute love interest to one of the others. As they do, storyline differentiation becomes a bit trickier, because there isn’t enough distinction between how the characters process and narrate their worlds: only between the formal positions they occupy in the course of this interstellar political mystery.
Other aspects of the worldbuilding, however, veer closer to what a reader of The Expanse would expect from a similar tale: rail-gun battles, a beloved repurposed military ship, combat exoskeletons (to accommodate for age-related weakness). That stylistic “feel” is also in the little things, though: like Toiwa asking “what,” not “who,” from the constabulary is on-scene during a near-riot (a term that accommodates for the team’s advanced non-human policing tools, along with human enforcers) and the use of “sticky” projectiles to prevent damage to the station itself. Such hard-SF touches, evident throughout, go a long way toward establishing Appel’s world as carefully considered on its own merits, and in a variety of sociopolitical and technical directions: a work of homage, then, more than mere imitation.
Similarly, space-dwelling humanity in Assassin’s Orbit is an overtly diverse group, drawing prominently from Brazilian, Indonesian, and Nigerian immigration waves, and invoking other Eastern cultures for place and ship names. There are also nods to “Belter”-styled linguistics from The Expanse in the way that, say, hand-signs are treated as an inevitable linguistic bridge in places where so many different cultures have come together to build a new society. I might quibble by suggesting that not enough of these diverse cultural elements are put to work here (a lost opportunity, that is, to better differentiate our POV characters and the way they process their worlds), but what does get referenced from these wide-ranging sources, including a naturalized Islamic presence, appears (to this outsider) at the very least thoughtfully researched.
As befits an action-thriller of this type, the stakes in Assassin’s Orbit escalate midway: in part, as major players on all sides take more confrontational stances around the central mystery, but also as the technical side of this interstellar crisis becomes more fully realized, and as the main characters join forces under a gradually dawning realization that something is absolutely not on the level on their respective “sides.” Although a bit slap-dash in relation to at least one later-plot storyline, the book ends with enough possibilities for future adventures to commend itself to a fuller series—where perhaps the main POV characters will have a touch more room to breathe, and where much of the first novel’s earlier socio-political discourse can be explored at greater depth. Although John Appel’s Assassin’s Orbit has none of the wit and goofy grace of The Golden Girls, as an entry into the canon of hard-bitten space operas inspired by The Expanse, it offers an adequate, thoughtfully plotted adventure with series-starting promise all its own.