Mars Xi is the most wanted woman in the Empire: the renegade voidwitch who destroyed a planet. Desperate to give her protege Pale a future and hungry for answers about herself, she goes in search of the one person who might be able to help them both: her father. The man who sold her to MEPHISTO in the first place…
One of the things I like about the Voidwitch Saga is that it takes a traditionally masculine role – the hard-boiled, super-powered antihero – and gives it to a woman. Killing Gravity makes very little effort to make Mars sympathetic (unless you count her affection for her face-eating space otak); it never dials back Mars’s attitude, and it consistently allows her to do terrible things. Void Black Shadow plays a fine line in bait and switch, focusing on the relatable emotions of guilt and loyalty – only to deliver a body-blow of planet-sized murder in the final act.
Mariam Xi is a monster.
But gosh, she’s a compelling one.
Void Black Shadow saw her reflect with horror on her death count in Killing Gravity; by the end of book two, she’d done far worse. In Static Ruin, I was expecting Mars’s guilt to play a pivotal role – and it does, to a point. For the first time, we see Mars exercise self-control and actively avoid mass-murder as her response to threats.
“It’s harder to be gentle”
That doesn’t mean nobody gets hurt – but while the Empire is happy to keep throwing ship after ship of cannon fodder at her, Mars does her best to evade rather than destroy them. Instead, the drama comes from confronting her past. It makes Static Ruin a quieter, tenser affair than its predecessors.
And if I’m honest, it didn’t work as well for me. For a story that’s all about the emotional impact of its revelations, it didn’t leave much of a dent (although there are brutal moments along the way). Unlike the first two novellas, this one felt rushed; for me, what it really needed was more space to land its blows.
However, there were aspects of it that I really appreciated. Mars travels to Sommer in search of her father, where she finds a hidden colony raising voidwitches with compassion and respect. It’s a bittersweet promise of a better life; a life never offered to Mars herself. There’s a fleeting moment where it’s clear she could stay – that they would practically worship her as Marius Teo’s daughter – but Mars isn’t cut out to be a role model. And Sommer hides other secrets about her past, which leave her keener than ever to hunt down her father.
Arriving on Azken, a planet privately owned by the Hurtt Corporation (reassuring, isn’t it?), brings Mars face to face with another aspect of herself: Hurtt’s head of security is a woman called Mallory Xi – a MEPHISTO-trained voidwitch of Mars’s generation. She is what Mars could have been if Sera hadn’t rescued her: loyal, ruthless and convinced that the suffering inflicted on her as a child was worth it. Where Mars broke out of the program – and later destroyed it – Mallory wants to set up a new one.
It’s a conflict of interest that can only go nuclear in the end. But I enjoyed that this volume doesn’t just have Mars reflect on what she’s become (or dwell on her guilt); it surrounds her with crooked mirrors, showcasing aspects of herself.
Which brings us to Pale. He takes pleasure in exercising his abilities – having spent much of his life built into a weapons platform, he doesn’t have much context for people; and he’s conditioned to associate lashing with relief. His joy in carnage worries Mars as much as the seizures that are slowly killing him, but she can’t help growing attached to him. He’s another glimpse of what she could have been. But when they finally find her father, it’s Pale and Marius who form an instant, undeniable bond.
Poor Mars. Marius rejected her as a child, selling her to MEPHISTO. Now he largely ignores her and lavishes his attention on Pale instead. When Marius – dying of a degenerative brain disease – does see her, he thinks she’s her mother Cilla, which opens a window onto another unpleasant history (SPOILER (mouse over to read) and one that I’m not convinced added much to the story, if I’m honest. Marius is such an asshole that he allowed the woman he supposedly loved to die and then sold her daughter. Are we meant to be impressed that Mars curbs her instinct to crush him? Maybe).
It should be a fraught, personal tale. In practice, I felt the tense confrontations with Neer Dehmer on Sommer and Mallory Xi on Azken delivered more than Marius’s sordid past or fragmented present. Rafael Hurtt, too, sat oddly with me: the Elon Musk of the Empire, who is neither a Bond villain (in spite of employing Doctor Modern, straight off the creepy scientist production line) nor quite the earnest visionary he purports to be. Instead, he ends up feeling naive – even bland, necessary to the plot rather than fully-imagined.
In the end – and I feel bad for saying it – Static Ruin left me somewhat dissatisfied. It’s neither a final bite-size serve of scorching action, nor entirely convincing as an emotional harrowing. But it does give Mars closure, of sorts – and I’m glad to have been introduced to this intriguing universe. I think I’d just like to have seen more of it.