Mariam Xi – Mars – is on the run from a military research unit. Gifted with extraordinary psychic powers and trusting only a tiny, genetically-engineered creature who likes to sleep in her spacesuit, her instinct is to go it alone. But even a voidwitch needs allies if she’s to discover who – and what – she really is, and just what she can become…
Killing Gravity doesn’t so much kick off in media res as kick you in the teeth and start sprinting down the road with your wallet. It starts so thoroughly in the thick of the action that I found myself checking whether I’d accidentally picked up mid-series.
We join Mars and Seven in a dying spaceship, being rescued by a salvage crew who don’t quite know what to make of what they’ve found. Mars isn’t inclined to explain anything to them – partly because she doesn’t expect them to be alive for very long (…even if she doesn’t kill them herself) – which keeps the reader neatly in the dark too. The complete lack of context is a little confusing, but it leaves you in no doubt about how mistrustful Mars is of everyone – and how amoral that frees her up to be.
“I could never beat him in a fair fight, but only assholes fight fair”
As best I can tell, Mars’s conscience was probably cut out about the same time the military were boosting her nascent psychic powers. Sold to Mephisto (short for Military Experimental Post-Human Specialist Training Organisation) as a child, she was the most successful product of a research program aimed at creating a corps that can kill you with their minds. And if you ignore the fact that exercising her powers leaves her with crippling migraines, she’s pretty damn good at it.
Killing Gravity covers a lot of ground (or space) for a novella: three doozy locations, with a set-piece confrontation in each; a heap of intriguing backstory – trickled out in bite-size fragments, rather than in dollops of exposition; and a group of characters who I found myself caring about and intrigued by even though we barely get to know them.
Mars herself is a monster. To say she doesn’t play well with others would be a massive understatement. Her response to being rescued is to plan a shipjacking. When she’s cornered in a bar, she starts a riot. When there’s no easy distractions, she doesn’t hesitate to commit mass murder. It’s not that she doesn’t know that what she does is terrible; it’s just that she doesn’t care. Her victims (mostly) ask for it – and the more I found out about Mephisto, the more sympathy I had for her no-questions-asked approach. And to cut her some slack, she is capable of loyalty and empathy – they just take some earning.
The salvage team who rescue her are a mixed bag: Squid, the captain, is the most sympathetic character in the novella, unexpectedly supportive and surprisingly forgiving. The muscle – short-tempered, one-armed Trix and cinnamon roll deserter Mookie – are a study in contrasts. While there’s no obvious reason for Mars to try and enlist their aid, it still came as a surprise when she did everything she could to ditch them at the earliest opportunity. Conversely, while Squid’s determination to help her feels unearned and largely unwarranted, it’s very endearing (…and yes, I kinda ship them. Heck, even the wary gen-eng beastie Seven likes Squid).
I even found myself warming to Miguel, a stackhead who verbalises what should be internal monologue so that he can record his thoughts, which is simultaneously creepy and weirdly sweet. Or maybe just sweetly creepy. Either way, he clearly has unspecified history with Mars, made up of equal amounts excitement (“It’s chaos down here, chica. You always bring the excitement with you”) and frustration (“Should have at least gone in for a hug.“).
I also liked some of the casual character and world-building. There’s not a lot – this is a fast-paced action thriller hurled across the stars at a rate of knots – so the incidentals struck me all the more. Hints that triples are more common than couples. Mars’s ambiguous but generous sexuality (probably pansexual, although I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether my ship comes in). Non-binary Squid who likes things to be clear (yes, I smiled), which is why they refuse to give their AI a voice mod to make them sound like a person.
And near the end, Mars apologising for snapping at Squid during a firefight (of all the things Mars did on that ship that Squid might freak out at, snapping at them was the least of it, but it’s lovely that she grows to care). Because while Killing Gravity is an explosive space opera, Corey J White is keenly interested in his developing his heroine. Mars is emotionally reshaped as deftly as she physically reconfigures her enemies’ battle armour. Hard edges are worn down; a warmer core gets hinted at. We get to glimpse the woman rather than the weapon.
…which isn’t to say she’s got softer. There are secrets and surprises out in deep space, and Mars finishes Killing Gravity with a lot more context and just as much rage as she started. I for one am very curious to see what she does about it (but I bet it’s messy). I thoroughly enjoyed Killing Gravity, and I’m looking forward to picking up the adventure in Void Black Shadow.