Pelquins Comet

There’s a hidden imperative for a new nomenclature of speculative adventure that sits just behind Ian Whates new novel. In bygone days the term ‘Boys Own Adventue’ might have been applied, but that would do an immediate disservice to all of the well realised female protagonists who inhabit the pages of this interplanetary tale of alien treasure hunters. Maybe, ‘Ripping Yarn’ could better suit the pacey ensemble driven action but, once again, that falls short of capturing the otherworldy diversity of the universe the author has created.

No doubt there is more than a passing homage to the high adventure of the pulps, but with Pelquin’s Comet this has been filtered through post-Whedon/post-Firefly sensibilities that allows for counterpoints, plot arcs and sub plots as well as the tempering of oblique character motivations and well presented interpersonal relationships.

There are more differences than similarities to Whedon’s seminal SciFi TV series, but it’s fair to say that the influence is still front and centre. An amnesiac and weaponised female engineer, an on-board doctor high on his own supply, a historic tension between the Comet’s captain, Pelquin, and his second in command, Nate Almont – which transposes oh so readily onto Firefly’s Mal versus Jane. And yet the differences and, most relevantly, the character of Thadeus Drake bring a distinctive and fresh flavour to the expansive narrative.

Interestingly, Whates uses the financial needs of funding a far future treasure hunt as a plot device that underpins all of the central action. Financiers and politicians vie for a piece of the lucrative alien artifact resource with Drake being tasked to protect the economic interests of his employers. As result, he’s a peculiar combination of auditor, detective and CIA field operative, which isn’t to undermine just how engaging he is on the page. He’s also someone who can handle himself when the fists start to fly, although for Drake his weapon of choice is a walking cane that packs the combined technological punch of a force-field and taser. Seeing him deftly fence with this weapon against various genetically enhanced thugs, you can help but imagine displaced versions of John Steed or Sherlock Holmes.

When you then factor in his seeming inoxious genpet companion, Mudball – who may well be an ancient alien entity that he’s psychically linked to – it makes it hard for any of the other characters to grab the limelight whenever he’s the focus of attention. However, and with a direct nod to Whates’ skill in characterisation, most of the additional cast do just that. A few are lost to the peripheries, which is always a hazard for the ensemble piece, but most do so for logical, plot-driven reasons.

As well as providing weight to the characters’ motivations, the socio-economic foundation of the work gives credence to its world building. The other central and colonial race, the Xters, are spider-like creatures that have an uneasy but functional interaction with human interests. The fact that all out war doesn’t break out between the two, as both find the other physically repugnant on many levels, is because of a diversity of required resources. The Xters preferred habitat is harmful to humans and there are numerous non-populated planets for both species to expand into. Hints about tensions at the edges of these colonial manoeuvres are rife throughout the book, but these are tempered with windows into a growing, mutual respect. Where Whates takes these conflicting forces is yet to be seen, but the groundwork remains full of potential.

On the evidence of all of this, perhaps Space Opera would be a more suitable piece of taxonomy, but that really should be held in reserve. As the book’s subtitle – “Book one of the dark angels” – suggests, there’s a way to go before the author’s vision is fully realised. As a result Pelquin’s Comet does come heavy with the risk of asking many more questions than there is room to answer. That’s not to its detriment, though, as the questions asked are intriguing enough to keep the reader’s interest piqued beyond the closing page, and there is closure to be had. It may well be closure powered by swashbuckling fate than an meticulously executed vault robbery, but its one that fits the overall feel of the piece.

In fact, there’s more here that fits overarching genre umbrella of ‘Adventure Fiction’, with Pelquin’s Comet definitely harking back to a bygone age before SciFi could broaden and muddy such classifications. It’s not an altogether accurate way to sum up all the subtleties or modern tropes that this book contains, but it is useful to prepare those seeking this particular and fast-paced blend of enjoyable, technologically enhanced derring-do.