I typically try to avoid spoiling the plot of books I review, so if it seems like you might enjoy a book, you can get it and read it and still have that “first read” experience, as you only get that once. However, for this book, I determined to spoil the heck out of it in order to hopefully dissuade you from reading it ever. So if you want to read this book, make sure you stop reading this review when you hit the comma in the next sentence.
Heaven’s Shadow is a well-written piece of hard science fiction about astronauts performing a plausible space mission in the near future interspersed with vignettes from the ground crew and astronauts’ families up until around page 183, at which point the novel goes completely FUBAR and never even attempts to recover. See, apparently the near-earth object they were investigating was not an asteroid, but an alien craft. And it has gestation chambers that harvest quantum information from the blahblahblah to build döppelgangers of the main characters’ deceased loved ones. Who the main characters, professionally trained astronauts all, proceed to completely trust (Americans / etc), or go beserk (Russians) and try to kill. Irregardless, all kinds of crazy stuff happens, and they find a dying alien monitor thingy, who reveals the craft was sent here to kidnap slave warriors for a battle on their home planet. And then the alien craft beams up a bunch of main characters from JPL / NASA who were trying to follow what was going on with the mission from the ground in the secondary plotline, and then all the alien döppelgangers die because of course they do and the craft worbles off on its way back to wherever it came from.
Let’s go back to where this all goes wrong: the “alien chamber” itself. I found it very poorly described, even though it was the book’s tipping point. The main characters enter the chamber, and… that’s it. They cannot see the horizon at all, and they describe the walls a bit. And there are some towers made of coral, and some rain. And then some plants. But none of it builds any kind of a coherent picture, and as the characters venture forward into it, it never coalesces into anything more than a big foggy cavern with some crazy stuff going on. It’s also worth mentioning the book is ~500 pages, and a good portion of it is spent here, but it never comes out as anything other than “characters with no idea what to do wandering doing nothing interesting until the plot demands that something interesting happens.”
Additionally, the alien chamber is where the astronauts’ characterization breaks down. They go from being carefully selected experts on a mission to being bickering idiots whose behavior is so unprofessional they wouldn’t be picked for either team in a pick-up basketball game, let alone for an extraterrestrial mission that costs hundreds of millions of dollars. All reason and logic go out the window, and everything the characters do makes you tempted to yell at them like it’s some C-rated horror movie and those characters are walking into the forest at night seriously have they ever watched a horror movie what are they doing!
I did enjoy the bits of alternate media scattered throughout the book (text messages, interviews, forum posts, social media, etc.), and thought that it interfaced with the book and pre-FUBAR theme really well. I also thought the book did a great job at characterization, both with the astronauts dealing with stress (although I am not convinced they would break so easily) and showing the ground crew and families dealing with the stress and tension that having an astronaut for a parent or significant other or coworker places on your relationship. I just wished that a lot of the alien nonsense had been trimmed out.
Unfortunately, I saw two sequels in a book store the other day, so I fear that at some point I will have a mental break and end up ordering the next two.
Cover Art Review: Haunting and beautiful. I just wish the astronauts had explored that place, instead of an empty, foggy cavern.
Published: Ace Books, 2011.