The Dirty Dozen were the best, but half of them are dead and the other half hate each other. 40 years after disaster sent them their separate ways, an existential threat and a glimmer of redemption could get the survivors back together – unless their ancient grudges destroy them first.
I’ve been looking forward to The All-Consuming World ever since I first heard about it. Cassandra Khaw has a wicked way with words and a talent for putting them to use in ways that make me squirm. Deploy that craft in a space opera of sentient ageships and queer cyborg clones with one last job to do and you have the very definition of my jam, right?
The All-Consuming World is a glorious mash-up of familiar tropes, unhesitating violence, relentless trauma and endlessly, graphically inventive words deployed as brutal poetry to grind and cut. If you’re queasy about swearing, stay the fuck away – the Dirty Dozen were the baddest bitches in the galaxy, and narrator Maya is not about to moderate her tone any more than she’s about to learn impulse control. Confrontational aggression and terrible (terrible) choices are the name of her game: you can embrace it and strap in or you can see yourself out and hope she doesn’t knife you as you go.
I loved Maya. I don’t often read compromised enforcers as protagonists (although I often enjoy them in a supporting role) – let alone see a woman cast as one – and I relished her. The All-Consuming World is the sort of explosive action thrill ride that has traditionally centred male characters even in futures where gender is the last thing that should matter to your cloned cyborg crew. Here, the only men on page are some would-be fight club bois who get crushed to establish Maya’s badassery; a soft teenager who is part of a brief exploration of what hard-boiled mercs might do ‘after’; and a male-identifying AI full of adopted neuroses. Brilliant. Swing that pendulum the other way; reflect and redress historic erasures. Bonus points for the conversation in which two of the Dozen reveal they are nonbinary / genderfluid and confront former leader Rita over her heavily gendered vision for the gang.
Rita is the brains to Maya’s brawn; a manipulative leader and skewed moral compass who can talk anyone into anything and who wholeheartedly believes in bonds created by shared trauma. Her control of the cloning process – and through it, of Maya – is absolute. She’s frustratingly opaque; unknowable through the shield of Maya’s chemically-induced adoration.
But even Rita can’t dictate all of Maya’s feelings. She can ensure Maya is her loyal rabid dog, but she can’t override the tiny sparks of humanity that show Maya in a softer light. After years of what amounts to abuse, Maya has a fractured need to violently push back on affection (don’t be nice to me. You. Can’t. Be. Nice. To. Me), but also spends decades quietly keeping Constance’s shelf stocked with fresh hot chocolate in case she comes home. She still feels affection and attraction – and guilt. For me, the tensest moments in the narrative were born of the uncertainty as to which warring imperative would win out to determine Maya’s actions.
I finished this book conflicted: it was fierce and bright and going out in a blaze of glory, but it was also confusing on multiple levels. I adore Cass Khaw’s artistry with language, but the prose was so dense with obscure terms it was exhausting. I can’t knock Khaw’s choices – those obscure words always turned out to have been chosen with devastating precision – but repeatedly stopping to look them up did few favours to what was otherwise a fast-paced torrent of words, the interruptions making it harder to keep track of what was going on.
Not everything felt as considered as the word selection. In the heat of action, a vague reference riffing off a familiar trope works fine, but when I paused for breath I tended to find the plot lost coherence. To give you a spoiler-free example: why does Rita need a demolitions expert and a getaway driver (other than these are called for by the ‘getting the band back together’ trope and allow a kick-ass recruitment montage; Maya’s side trip to find Rochelle was my favourite part of the book)? Whatever Rita’s reasons, they can’t have been vital: when not everyone is available, it’s never acknowledged or solved for; the action simply proceeds.
The world-building is similarly hand-waved. For the most part, that works just fine – The All-Consuming World mostly builds up just enough window dressing to sail past at speed or blow it up in passing – but I would have liked more clarity about the ageships and Minds. I ended up reading them as nebulous factions who might not normally co-operate but would make an exception for the Dirty Dozen; but I wasn’t clear what it meant to belong to the Bethel vs the Penitents, or confident that I grasped the nuances of their interactions. Perhaps I’m overthinking it (but you know I can’t help but kick the tyres on world-building).
I’d still cautiously recommend The All-Consuming World. Maya alone is worth the price of admission. Her interior drama sang to me: the damage done by toxic relationships and corrosive grief; her inability to resist Rita or move on; her defiant willingness to go out dirty and glorious with maximum fucking damage. At its best, the knife-sharp prose is a joy, all visceral similes and skewed metaphors, familiar sayings twisted to unnerving new uses. I could – in retrospect – have adopted Maya’s stubbornness and let the unfamiliar terms wash past me, snatching the gist from context.
For better or worse, The All-Consuming World is a short, punchy read. To me, it would have benefited from a little more space to breathe to reach its full potential, but I’m conscious that I read a draft: all my complaints may all have been addressed in the final edit.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. THE ALL-CONSUMING WORLD is out now from Erewhon Books as ebook or paperback.