The Darwin Elevator, by Jason M. Hough

I couldn’t help myself!

Series: The Dire Earth Cycle, #1

Publisher: Del Rey (US), Titan Books (UK)

Published: 30.7.2013 (US), 26.7.2013 (UK)

Where I got it: Review copy via NetGalley (purchased later from Amazon UK – see pic!)

Back cover synopsis:

The Builders came to Earth and constructed an elevator from Darwin, Australia into space. No one knows why, or if they will return.

Years later, a virus ravaged the planet. The rare immunes survived, others became something less than human. How the elevator suppresses the disease, and why, remains unknown. But scientist Dr Tania Sharma has a terrifying theory… 

As Darwin collapses under the onslaught of refugees, reluctant captain Skyler Luiken and his scavenger crew scour the wasteland outside the elevator’s protective aura for essential resources. 

But when the alien technology fails, will humanity survive? 

My fascination with science fiction is still in the infant stages, in terms of what I’ve read compared to how very, very much is still out there and waiting to be read – but Jason M. Hough is, with this debut novel, definitely already one of the authors whose work I need to read. 

Alien invasions (or visitations) and post-apocalyptic settings are nothing new, but in cases like that it only matters even more that you have interesting characters and an equally interesting plot to offer. Hough gives us both from the outset. The Elevator of the title is, even at the starting point of the story, beginning to break down. Given that the area in which it connects to Earth is the only safe place in the world for the survivors of the plague that the Builders seemed to bring with them, this is very, very bad news. Skyler Luiken and his scavenger crew are hired to locate and acquire records of computer data that could be helpful in figuring out if/when the Builders will return, but no one can know what they intend to do before they actually arrive. Do they intend to try to put right what went wrong on Earth, or simply finish what they started?

Complicating everything (as it does) is the internal war that’s brewing between the Orbital Council, who run everything concerning life on the Elevator’s space stations, and the more mercenary ground crews in Nightcliff, at the base of the Elevator, run by its Director, Russell Blackfield. The two groups trade food (from the Elevator, where healthy gardens and farms can be grown) for air and water from Nightcliff. Darwin is in a sorry state, barely more than a city-sized slum being slowly and steadily run into the ground altogether. Its people are getting ever more restless, and Russell Blackfield needs to turn things around. Well – for himself, at any rate…

Not every interesting or well-written character has to be a likeable good guy, and Blackfield is a perfect example of this. He’s scum and I Did Not Like Him – but I definitely do admire Hough for throwing in a character who’s both central to much of the plot, and thoroughly despicable. He’s also an incredibly egotistical fool, in some ways, so you know pretty much right away that anything he’s going to be involved with will not run smoothly…

On the other hand, Skyler is a man I found immediate sympathy for. At the beginning of the story, he’s not having an easy time keeping his crew together. Having filled the shoes of a captain who was better at the job than he is, everyone on the crew is feeling the change, and it’s not for the better. They haven’t run a successful job in a while, and so there’s a lot riding on getting this latest one right. Naturally, everything goes very wrong … Skyler ends up on his own for much of the second half of the book, and the more intimate view of his character, the trials and the danger he has to endure and survive, had me rooting hard for him to make it to the end. 

Tania, too, was fascinating to me. Smart, capable if a little naive about certain things (no spoilers here so I’ll leave that there), and also entirely sympathetic. She ends up on the Orbital side of the conflict that blows up over who controls the Elevator, thanks to Blackfield’s ambition, and his personal attentions where Tania’s concerned are another reason I seriously hope he gets what’s coming to him, and also that Tania remains as she is – a strong and relatable female lead, in a genre that’s somewhat notable for its lack of them. I applaud Hough for featuring her as well as he does.

Another aspect I appreciated about this story is that there’s plenty of background information, but no ‘infodump’. We learn as much as we can about how the world became such a deadly place, but as with the characters, we don’t know everything and there are still plenty of questions to ask. Skillful handling of such a plot and its pacing can make or break a book no matter how interesting the characters are, and Hough handles this very well. 

The more immediate threat to humanity, the ‘subhumans’, is another element I liked a lot. While at risk of possibly being yet another take on zombies, Hough does the smart thing and escalates the threat they present instead of simply leaving them to become a mere background detail. Something about the plague that turned most of humanity into mindless, hungry ‘creatures’ is changing. Where they were largely aimless until now, something is compelling them to begin to band together into packs, to work together to hunt their prey. Is this related to the return of the Builders, or the failing of the Elevator somehow? We don’t yet know, but the question and its implications is a pretty chilling one…

All in all, I’ve got no regrets about picking this book up. Jason Hough’s debut is a solid and thoroughly entertaining read, and puts him right up there next to the likes of John Scalzi on my personal shelves. I can’t wait to pick up the other two books and find out what happens next! Definitely recommended.

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