I have a policy 517YQxDo8PL._SY346_.jpgagainst review requests: namely, I never do them anymore. I can’t tell you how many requests I get for reviews from authors. The problem is that some authors proved we can’t have nice things; so, to avoid any appearance that accepting review copies means I am guaranteeing a favorable review, I just don’t accept them anymore.

The closest I get is with something like this book, The Long Black, by J. M. Anjewierden. The author and I happen to be in a few Facebook groups together, and he mentioned some financial difficulties; nothing very urgent, but that he was depending on sales from his books. I’d never taken a look at them, and I made my policy clear, but I said I’d at least put them on my long, long list of books to review. I have books I’ve been meaning to review for literally years. And while Jared shares several Facebook groups with me, he and I are hardly friends. In fact, I really just happen to recognize his name in passing.

Jared mentioned this three days ago. I’m already writing the review. Why? Because I made the mistake of looking at the first few pages to get a sense of the story, bought it, and wound up reading the whole thing in three sittings, most of that on Sunday. 

Now, the book is far from polished. In fact, there are numerous typos in this book, to the point that I rarely see so many in published novels anymore because most self-pub authors know the necessity of getting a good editor. There are also several passages that commit the literary sin of infodumping (if you don’t know what that is, I have an article on that). There’s also one very notable instance of floating perspective that could have easily been avoided; and a couple inconsistencies, such as the main character mentioning that there were no birds on her home world, even though the book made a point of how chickens thrived there. I also found it very odd that, despite the main character encountering numerous new words and concepts alien to her upbringing (such as “faith,” “spirit,” and so on), she was able to immediately recognize “deo gratias” as being from a different language, rather than just another unfamiliar phrase.

The structure of the story is also a little different if you’re not used to the type of story that lit-snobs refer to as a bildungsroman, or what the rest of the population just calls a coming-of-age story. It’s possible to have a single arc in such a story, as with the typical novel, but it’s occasionally hard to do that without making it feel forced. Harry Potter is a notable example of making it work, but that’s over the length of seven books, each with a self-contained story that fits into a larger whole. The Long Black feels more like a traditional coming-of-age story, such as Oliver Twist. There are multiple adventures, few of which fit into a neat whole, and therefore carries the biographical feel typical of this sub-genre. However, since that kind of story is actually fairly rare, this book may feel like it is meandering a little.

The author’s politics also might peek through a bit, what with the most infodumping passage being about firearms, and the main character growing up in a hellhole of a communist regime. As I’ve said numerous times on this blog, I’m against messagefic, defined as stories that require you to agree with the author’s message in order to enjoy the story. The only message that has to be agreed with here, however, is self-reliance and freedom, so I suspect most people would not have a problem with that.

Since I finished it in a little over a day, one can assume I liked it. And since I rarely do any review that isn’t a recommendation or a lesson, one can assume I liked it enough to spread around. All true. All quite true.

The Long Black follows a young girl, Morgan, who has grown up on the heavy-gravity world Hillman. This planet is ruled by an oppressive government of “comrades,” who talk about equality but accept that some are more equal than others. The planet has two exports: the abnormally thick hardwoods they can grow in that gravity well, and the ore dug up by miners. The common people are put to work either in the mines or in support capacities like growing food — frequently both.

The book gives a rare look, here, at what it’s like to live in a heavy-gravity world, namely one at about twice Earth gravity. Think for a moment what it might be like to walk around all day, every day, wearing clothing that doubles your weight. Sure, you’d get strong, but your bones aren’t actually designed to carry that much. Plus, falling would hurt, wouldn’t it? Now imagine that you’re not actually carrying around anything extra, but that you’re in a deep gravity well; in addition to feeling like everything weighs twice as much, everything falls twice as fast. Including you. So everyone actually wears padded clothing and has padded floors. Most of the time, authors only show us how inhabitants of heavy-gravity worlds are extra strong; this book shows us a little more. In fact, the only thing the author forgot was that when Morgan finally got to a lower-gravity world, the air density would be like she was at a high altitude.

Morgan’s parents smuggle her off the planet, and she lies about her age; she’s only 14 in Earth years (referred to as e-standard), but she claims to be 17 in order to avoid being taken to a home. Numerous people don’t believe her at times (in fact, one hospital interrogation is quite amusing), but she manages to get a job and enroll in a university to be a starship mechanic. She sets a goal and gets there; and that’s only about half the book.

I enjoyed the characters; each of them felt like their own persons, even those who only show up for a scene. I also have to applaud the worldbuilding; it gives us just enough to ground us in the setting, while also making me really want to have more. Just the details on the courier ships later in the book was a great touch; and the constant teases about Earth completely disappearing is enough for a promise of a whole series. Who knows, maybe Morgan will find out what happened? Or perhaps we’ll just be exploring her own corner of the galaxy, as she plies the starlanes as a mechanic.

I tend to enjoy attempts to take a look at science fiction settings from the perspective of those who keep it running — merchants, mechanics, and so on. Frequently, the genre gets caught up in epic wars and grand, sweeping politics. Don’t get me wrong, I love those; but there’s a reason why “By Any Means Necessary” is the episode I point at to show the superiority of Babylon 5 over Deep Space Nine, even if I am still choosing between two good series. Star Trek usually skips over the people who keep the Federation running, and most of those episodes are in the original series. Much of science fiction is influenced by Star Trek, whether it be by taking inertial dampeners and stun settings, or by the casual approach to the inner workings of society.

The Long Black takes that and does more: it weaves that kind of look at a world into a good story. Blue-collar sci-fi is rare; well-written blue-collar sci-fi (even if it does need another editorial pass) is a gem.