The Vela: The Heart of the Web | Fortress World

An orange spaceship zips past a blue-grey planet surrounded by asteroids

The secret to human survival is laid bare as Asala and Niko confront the underground aboard Camp Ghala. But who will be saved?

I’ve had to confront an unfortunate truth: I’m not enjoying The Vela on every level. Last week, I decided to reset my expectations to focus on what The Vela is doing well – because there are aspects I like enormously (and perhaps it’s unfair to judge it for not being something I’m not sure it set out to be).

I also decided to review episodes 5 and 6 together… but that’s mostly because my real life is currently rather overwhelming and I’m finding far too few opportunities to read – let alone digest and review my reading.

At its best, The Vela is a super queer odd couple space opera action adventure, salted with pointed commentary on three of the biggest challenges we face: climate change, refugee crises, and the selfish pursuit of personal or political advantage over the collective good of humankind. That’s one hell of a pitch, and it delivers. Plus our action heroes – a conflicted trans sniper and a non-binary revolutionary hacker – are hardly traditional casting. And the best bit? It’s just who they are. It’s not a big deal. Because why the hell should it be?

In The Heart of the Web, Asala and Niko are taken to meet one of the powers of the Camp Ghala underworld: Hafiz, a refugee whose home is already dead, ruthlessly determined to survive – and to punish those they blame for their planet’s death. Where I’ve complained about pace in the last two episodes, this series centrepiece takes its time for the facts – and the implications – to sink in.

The MacGuffin aboard The Vela is a way out of this solar system, a drive that can take ships across the vast emptiness of space in the blink of an eye. It’s the promise of a new home for humanity, which means that promises and lies are flowing thick and fast. Even allies are keeping secrets from one another, with Hafiz and Soraya clearly not expecting the same outcomes from a plot they’ve both helped hatch. I’m not sure we should trust anyone at this point, but Niko and Asala are more interested in securing the technology than figuring out who is telling the truth.

And that means going down to Gan-De to find the woman who made it.

Fortress World kicks off with the sort of adrenaline-fuelled thrill ride that leaves me slightly shaky as Asala tries to evade attacks from enthusiastic Gandesian drones. Gan-De is very well defended, and really keen on not letting anyone from topside slip through to the surface.

One of the things these two episodes really bring home is just how much Asala and Niko have come to respect one another. Niko may still feel that Asala patronises them, but when we’re in Asala’s head there’s no doubt that she considers them competent, worryingly well-connected and clearly better at lying than she once gave them credit for. She trusts Niko to get them out of trouble, which is frankly amazing given she’s a sniper, even if she sometimes wishes they were a bit quicker on the tactical uptake. Conversely, Niko still has a touch of hero worship for the almost superhuman mercenary, even if they aren’t sharing all their secrets quite yet. But I love that they’re coming to understand her a bit better too.

Consequently, their relationship feels far more balanced. They bounce situations between them; they (metaphorically) stand back to back and get the job done. It can only end in some hair-raisingly terrifying situation where one or both of them has to make impossible choices (I reckon), but I’m loving the development of their relationship. Even better, it’s entirely platonic (so far, anyway, and no foreshadowing of any romance) – hooray for a story focused on forging a working relationship under extreme pressure!

Still, I found Fortress World a bit of a bumpy landing. I don’t object to swearing (fuck, I do it all the time), but it felt like we went from none at all (have I just not been paying attention?) to swearing as punctuation, which stood out almost as much as Niko’s intermittent use of random slang in previous episodes.

More seriously, this episode felt like a series of well-realised scenes (the terrifying opening sequence; the fight with the Gandesian militia; the confrontation in the caves) punctuated by minor episodes that felt stilted and never quite came to life (Dyfed, actual conversation with the militia).

I might have been tempted to leave more on the cutting room floor, but I’m glad we got to see Asala engage what looked an awful lot like subterfuge at the end as she tried to get the information she needed – not her natural territory! (even better, Niko didn’t notice; so either I give Asala too much credit, or our technical cinnamon roll is still an innocent under their newly-forming calluses).

And now we enter the final act: The Vela is found and her secret exposed; and the stakes are as high as they can go. Our heroes are trapped on Gan-De with nobody to trust; and everybody is morally compromised. With no right choices left, what will Asala do in response to what she now knows? And will Niko support her? With Becky Chambers at the helm next week, I’m expecting to be raked across the coals as things come to the boil…

I was sent an advance copy of The Vela in exchange for honest reviews ahead of release, but I’d already subscribed to it because oh my goodness this is so clearly my jam. Not sure where that leaves me with the new UK laws on declaring interests? No, me either.

The Vela is now available at