Science fiction readers who see a title like Artifact Space are likely to be put in mind of British space opera writer Alastair Reynolds. And while Miles Cameron’s first foray into science fiction does call back to Reynold’s Revelation Space series, Cameron, best known for fantasy and historical novels (written as Christian Cameron), pulls on a range of science fiction traditions including space opera, military and mercantile science fiction to deliver something fresh.
Artifact Space opens with a bang – Marca Nbaro is on the run from the Orphanage. She uses her last credit, earned from pawning a family heirloom, to hack her way onto one of the four Greatships. These are giant starships which carry trade between far flung star systems and most importantly, trade with an alien species for an incredibly valuable commodity known as xenoglass. Having slightly faked her credentials, Nbaro successfully joins the crew of the Greatship Athens as a midshipman, and ends up in one of the pilot crews. But even before the Athens can leave on its multiyear journey news arrives of the destruction of one of the other Greatships and later a second, placing higher value and higher risk on the voyage of the Athens.
Nbaro needs to grow into her role as a midshipman, sloughing off some of the instincts and reflexes that she developed in the Orphanage. But that experience also gives her an edge, a work ethic and way of thinking that pushes her to achieve and impresses her peers and her superiors. And, unlike her lonely childhood experience, Nbaro finds help from her fellow crewmates, her commander and ultimately the ship’s artificial intelligence, which knows of her deceit but is happy to help her so long as she serves the ship.
Cameron, is already a prolific writer of fantasy, historical fiction (as Christian Cameron) and thrillers (as Gordon Kent) and brings some of that experience to bear, but has clearly also learned well from his science fiction predecessors. Artifact Space, while drawing on a number of well-established tropes, quickly establishes itself as a unique story anchored by a cast of engaging characters and an intriguing mystery. Cameron manages to pull off a combination of military training and tactics with page turning actions scenes, exotic locations, commercial negotiations (at one point Nbaro and her roommate become interstellar coffee traders) and interstellar political skulduggery. The conspiracy that drives the plot emerges slowly and leads to a couple of climactic battles which it turns out, are only the beginning of a much bigger conflict so that the ending is left hanging. There is no doubt that readers will be waiting impatiently on the second, and concluding, volume to this engaging series.