I am reviewing an advance copy provided by the publisher.
Black Hole Sun is a Science Fiction fairy tale for young adults. With a sense of humor. And a touch of Space Western thrown in. There are helpless villagers tormented by adversaries: the Draeu are monstrous and savage snout-nosed creatures who unapologetically eat humans for breakfast (and lunch, dinner, snacks, second breakfast, etc...). They demand child sacrifices to sate their appetite and postpone another round of pillaging and scare-mongering. These people aren't trained to fight. They have the equivalent of kitchen knives and pitchforks, but anger and determination don't make warriors out of people used to living underground. What they need is a hero.
Durango is a Regulator, a term which is implicitly described as a protector or military type who used to have clout, but is now looked at as a shameful joke. His past is mysterious and he pretends he's a reluctant hero, but really he's not. Durango just has a sympathetic heart and a deep loyalty to the institution he used to uphold. He can also curse like a sailor in several different languages, including Chinese, Spanish, Latin, German, Finnish, Japanese, and Greek.
David Macinnis Gill is nothing if not opportunistic with his inclusion of multiple cultures and languages in a narrative that takes them all in together, mixes them up, and parses them out at odd times that sometimes create a confusing mess rather than the melting pot I'm sure was the original intention. Where Gill's experimentation felt the weakest is in his mixing of religious tenets and practices--interchanging terms liberally like Valhalla and Nirvana--and in the type of leadership Mars used to have. Early on in the book it's described as a sovereignty, later as a business. I'm still not sure if Durango was heir to a vast corporate empire or if he's the next Lord of Mars. Perhaps in this new nation the two are the same. On Mars it might not matter which is which if society is still trying to figure things out for itself, trying new hats on for size to see which fits best.
I found the setting incredibly contagious and downright fun. Gill even detailed the world down to measuring time in Mars years, rather than using Earth as the standard like most SF tends to do. At 8.5, Durango is roughly seventeen years of age to us; according to NASA, Mars has a solar cycle of about 320 days longer than ours. I felt nerdy for having to look up this information (in a proud way), but was glad I picked up on the fact that I should look it up, rather than go on thinking eight- and six-year olds were running around with heavy weaponry.
Mars is a pugnacious frontier with rough characters and unforgiving terrain. What hasn't been covered in dust is covered in cynicism and the kind of attitude that could terraform the planet with a single sneer or spit of tobacco. Of course, not everyone's made of flint and hard-boiled skepticism. Jenkins and Fuse, for example, are the comedic relief of the story. The pair can come across as more slapstick than sarcastic, which makes them appear immature and their humor, forced more often than not, but they are a crazy addition to an already kooky cast of characters that includes, among others, an AI implanted into Durango's neural system and a second in command that could kick anyone's ass, her superior's included (I love Vienne).
Mimi is a snarky, quick-witted, and smart-mouthed AI who quotes poetry (favoring Robert Burns) and saves Durango's life with the kind of autopilot take over that I think we all wish we had access to. She's one of the best ingenuities of the book, but Gill has fun with his technology. I think his enthusiasm for tech forgives the disorganized collection of information on Regulators and the Tenets. Not to mention, some of his characters are a little uneven. I am thinking of Àine in particular, but Gill frequently introduces, uses briefly, and then seems to forget about a few characters. They remain afterthoughts (especially Àine, whose importance wanes considerably) in the background hum of activity surrounding Durango and his mission.
The archaic honor system the Regulators persist in deferring to creates rank-based tension that looked a bit ludicrous compared to the bigger picture, but helped flesh out the significance of the term Regulator: it evokes a tradition from the past that doesn't necessarily work in the present. I would have liked to have seen a little more, but for the most part, Gill doesn't give large expository dumps of information that would overwhelm the reader and undermine his careful delivery.
Despite any problems I had with certain characters, the organization of information, or an unclear, never fully realized culture, Black Hole Sun was really a lot of fun. It was fast-paced, which suits the action, and many of Gill's punchlines perfectly. Durango himself evokes a young Mal from "Firefly" or even, on a certain level, Cole from The Sheriff of Yrnameer. There's even a little bit of romance thrown in at just the right moments to make it both awkwardly amusing and heartwarming. I'm still not sure why females were designated "suzies" and males weren't called by anything other than a name or title, but for now the change of pace and setting was welcome. It isn't often I see YA SF titles; this one entertained me enough that I hope to see more from Gill in the future!