Z.A. Waterstone managed to duck later book issues again with Outcast, the third in the Echelon series. While this story builds on the events in the two previous books, besides a satisfying continuation of the greater story, Outcast resolves a complete plot arc. How Maia’s and Kaylan’s relationship develops is at the core of the arc, but the addition of new characters and situations are critical.
Outcast reads more like the first book, Echelon, than the second. The story is a little more personal, the conflicts immediate rather than catastrophic on the larger platform, and the consequences come from deliberate acts rather than different groups accidentally clashing.
Maia’s abilities are growing, and fracturing, so despite being on the run from the Darushee, they seek help from an outcast scientist Kaylan knows with the goal of stripping Maia’s access to the shared space. This single act, if possible, will restore Kaylan’s ship and free Maia to establish a new life. Ventra could not complete her colonization goals without a matriarch, making Roz the dominant AI once again.
Considering the layers in the previous books, you might guess getting Nirick’s help is far from easy, a path further complicated because the scientist is also a target for the bounty hunters in system. Maia’s new abilities reveal more about Nirick’s past than he’s comfortable sharing and less than she needs to understand why Kaylan trusts him. Between external and internal conflicts, things are bound to become difficult.
The story unfolds into a personal journey for Maia and Kaylan through fears, hopes, and dreams. Kaylan falls back on Darushee affects at first while Maia clings to the belief she can end all this and become her old self. Though I could guess some of it, there were twists thrown in I did not see coming, and yet they make perfect sense.
Nor is the greater story neglected. Several questions there are resolved, including whether Maia’s child would be viable (since Tara is born already), and some of these resolutions open up new, fascinating possibilities. I enjoyed meeting additional characters and being reintroduced to others from the earlier books. While the story resonates, it’s the strength of the characters that keeps me reading. I want to know how things work out and whether the hints unfold the way I think they might.
Nemet’s story (the Consort of Daru kept prisoner on Roz/Ventra because no one will take him) is one I was happy to see. It turns out to be more relevant than I’d supposed, and just as interesting.
In contrast, Nirick is a new addition, but his story offers more insight into the Darushee culture while having its own complexities. The compromises and conflicts between Maia and Nirick create tension in already critical situations, especially when Nirick’s motives are not always clear.
With a plot as interwoven as this one, it’s hard to hint at the events without spoiling so I’ll say only this is a fitting continuation of a complex, culture-clashing SF adventure. If you enjoy exploring ethical questions, scientific or civil, with engaging characters who turn philosophy into personal struggles, I think you’ll find the Echelon series a worthy addition to your collection.
P.S. I received a copy of Outcast to complete a beta read and chose to post a review of the updated novel because I enjoyed it.