When the crew agrees to take on a well-paying passenger who wants to return home, he leads them to Liantic, the gambling mesa of the uncharted territories, where hotels and casinos wrap the entire world, and where Rygel goes too far in a game of cards, betting and losing Moya. Netoros, the local leading council member and ruler of that casino sector, offers them a chance to buy off their debt if they’ll stay around for a few days, offering up the services of Zhaan to identify plants in a fellow councilman’s treasured garden, D’Argo to play bodyguard to a lounge singer that’s received a few threats on his life, and John (already famed for his wormholes) to the labs to solve a little problem with their atmosphere.
Following an assassination attempt a few years back against a specific ship’s engine drive, the atmosphere is now clouded with particles that make it impossible for inorganic vessels to fly, which has been a huge blow to the planet’s economy. All Liantic has are crummy little organic ferry pods that have a bad habit of rapidly deteriorating and dying. Such as the one Moya intercepts just as it leads to the death of the Peacekeeper its carrying. A Peacekeeper striking a back alley deal with Netoros to give her the techno-organic ferry of Moya and overthrow the council in exchange for our heroes and opening up the planet to Peacekeeper “protection”. So, yeah, Rygel’s loss was rigged.
This is a solid setup. The world of Liantic is sprawling and rich, with its constant nickle-and-diming and copious advertising, the Big Bird-like Lians are fun to visualize with their various styles of head feathers, and the main cast is worked into things well and each given something to do (thankfully for Zhaan, given how overlooked she was in the last books). While the main three are doing their things (D’Argo snarling at the singer’s eccentricities, John wrapping up the atmosphere problem lickety split thanks to his knowledge of human exhaust systems, and Zhaan realizing she herself is intended to be featured in the councilman’s expansive garden) we get the added threads of Chiana hitting the town both for fun and to seduce info from people, Aeryn encountering an exiled and bitter Peacekeeper tech that she was responsible for getting kicked out, then has to slip back into her old role to impersonate the Peacekeeper envoy who winds up dead, Moya is trapped in the atmosphere with a Chlorium field that’s slowly numbing her the point where systems are shutting down, and Rygel just wants to hit the gambling tables some more in the hopes he’d be able to win back his freedom. Which everyone instantly says no to.
The first half of the book plays out just fine, with everyone staying in character as they gradually settle into this world and uncover the conspiracy winding through its underbelly. The world-building is great, the interplay fast and funny, showing Keith R.A. DeCandido has a great handle on their voices and personalities.
In the second half, it largely falls apart. Some threads are entirely dropped, with the Lian who brought them there in the first place suddenly never being mentioned again, leaving Chiana to head back to the ship and perform a clumsy funeral on Moya’s behalf for the fallen ferry. John has little in the way of a quest to solve the atmosphere problem, just instantly locking onto his module’s exhaust and calling it a day. D’Argo and Zhaan both wrap up their threads rather easily, then go to the press with the story, which suddenly yanks everything into a resolution, even interesting threads like Rygel wooing another council member or Aeryn struggling with her Peacekeeper persona, both of which seemed to be building to more than what they ultimately ended up being. And then there’s a planet-destroying bomb pulled completely out of Keith’s ass in the last 10 pages just so Aeryn can suddenly resolve her arc with the exiled tech, who was so underused for the majority of the book as to be largely forgotten by this point.
This book is fine, with a setup that fits the series and plays its character well, but it never escapes the disposable nature of tie-in novels – like Dark Side of the Sun mostly managed with its ambition and intensity – and it completely drops the ball in the second half, leaving an interesting build to fizzle with little in the way of a satisfying end.