ChaosNova is a “creative gang and fiction-verse”, in which several writers and roleplayers get together to thrash out and write in a “moderately pulpy” science fiction universe. Kau D’varza looks like it’s the third book in the canon.
The eponymous station rests near the ‘Void Cloud’, a Bermuda Triangle-like anomaly whose presence hangs over the narrative. The story follows three or four perspective characters — idealistic and rebellious Elise, avuncular Gierre, and dutiful Raffa — as they deal with a new threat. This is military science fiction through and through; the dynamics of hierarchy are a major plot driver, and most scenes seem to contain a ‘crisp salute’.
The story plays out over quite a short timeframe — seemingly a few days (though that is muddied somewhat by the author’s insistence on bespoke measurements of time). Tantalising allusions are made to the wider fictional universe, like the Netrix, the Void Cloud, and the Reclaimers, but the actual plot events mostly don’t concern these. It’s clear that this universe contains a lot of secrets and has been well-planned, and the fact that Noë only gives us glimpses of it both gives the setting heft as well as entices the reader to find out more about this world. This is a universe of fractured alliances, lone city-states, dangerous abandoned systems, and isolated bastions of civilisation holding out against chaos and piracy in the void.
Kau D’varza feels like a TV series. A lot. Every scene is a minute or two long, dialogue-heavy, and takes place on the bridge of a spaceship, a restaurant, a crew member’s quarters, or a similarly easily-filmed interior location. There are no panoramic birds-eye-view space battles here; everything is told through the third-person perspective of a main character. This almost feels like a screenplay, novelised. Within a few chapters I had mentally assigned each main character to a member of the Babylon 5 cast.
Like that TV series, the characters of Kau D’varza aren’t clear poles on a moral compass. There are few truly villainous characters, and those that are present aren’t really fleshed out — they serve more as plot points than antagonists. This is a story of ordinary, multifaceted people struggling with a mystery, rather than a ‘good versus evil’ quest, and works well. The space station itself is an island of civilisation and strength, but it seems to be surrounded by mostly lawless and sparsely-populated systems — leading to interesting questions about isolationism versus imperialism.
Kau D’varza doesn’t do much new. If you’re looking for exciting new ideas about the future of humanity or fresh new alternatives to sci-fi tropes, look elsewhere — such as the genuinely innovative but ultimately unsatisfying Duchamp Versus Einstein, reviewed in Issue 3. That’s not really a criticism of this novel, though — more of an expectation-setter.
That accepted, there are criticisms: the author is perhaps slightly too cagey about the fundamentals of this universe, for example. Agreeable though it is to be tantalised, a touch more information about the assumptions upon which the story is based would have helped me understand the stakes and visualise the setting more. Similarly, the writer assumes that we’re more familiar with his characters than we are. The book quickly introduces a slew of characters and perspectives in the first few chapters — if there had been a test at fifty pages, I’d have failed it. Later on, there are a few occasions in which characters’ quirks are referred to in a way that should spark affectionate recognition but largely doesn’t, simply because we don’t know the characters that well.
There are other minor quibbles. A major subplot is a romantic relationship between two perspective characters — this ups the stakes for those involved and allows the characters to visibly grow and change, but in this writer’s (embarrassingly extensive) experience of workplace romance, the rush from awakened interest at the office party to going concern is a little brisk, and leapfrogs the trepidation and subterfuge usually involved. Characters spend pages wrestling with their consciences about the death of one of their faceless people whilst cheerfully blowing up spaceships full of baddies. It’s good to see characters reflect on their actions but the sentimentality rings hollow here.
However, I devoured this in a handful of sittings, over two days — which speaks for itself, as recommendations go. Despite the intimidating start I did find myself rooting for this family of oddballs, and I’m keen to learn more about the universe of ChaosNova. A compelling and fun read for lovers of the genre.