It’s Thanksgiving here in the United States, and what better time to share a novel where family, found and birth, is a strong theme. While the local tribes rescued the pilgrims from starvation, in Space Train, the Russell family is on a rescue mission as well. They enable resettlement away from the oppressive, nepotistic, race-divided regime that dominates the planet Main. What makes theirs a rescue is how they keep the new location a secret Main will kill to uncover. Their passengers may not be the refugees Captain Tom rescued during the last galactic war, but they are still in danger.
The large cast is peopled with distinct characters, so while I had some trouble tracking them at first, each character soon became an individual with their own stories. The Russell family is small after an attack on their home planet of Willerby during the war. Their piece is split between Tom and his crew on route to the new colony called Red, and his sister Rain and cousin Ellen, back on Willerby. Several Clears, the first alien species we meet, earn a narrative role, starting with Nene who develops a personal connection with Tom. Saxe is the ghost who haunts Tom with his cruel acts during the war–only he isn’t dead and buried. Then there’s the religious leader who doesn’t lead with a troubled past and a growing affection for Ellen that she wants to ignore; Richard, the husband of Ellen’s brother; and Zac and Kym, two of the passengers.
It may seem like a big list, and I haven’t mentioned them all, but this is a big book. Having so many points of view offers a well-rounded perspective of a complex, multi-layered story. The characters become real because they are full of history and intensity. My comments, which I use to write my review, are spare simply because I kept getting caught up in the story and forgetting to make any.
Nor are the characters clear-cut. The best example of this is Zac, a disabled veteran of the galactic war who lost both legs and his will to live. He’s coasting through life until he secures the future of his wife and son while shutting both out. That is both noble and horrible. Characters like Zac drew me into their struggles, so I rooted for different answers even when none seemed forthcoming.
The beginning is stronger than the later chapters, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book to the last page. Still, there are some scenes that happen off screen I’d prefer to have been present for and some layers don’t merge as smoothly with the main plot. It’s hard to explain without spoiling, but there’s enough meat in this book to fill more than one. Some later scenes felt a little like the author wanting to share aspects of the world that wouldn’t otherwise get a mention. That said, overall, the disparate plot threads worked together and strengthened the whole, especially in the first half of the novel, but even in the later parts.
The novel gives the consequences of war a close look, not only during action but in the survivors. A built-up military finds it easy to see itself as the solution to every problem along with the way that mentality enables leaders to ignore the problematic nature of attacking civilian targets, for example. We also learn firsthand how accounts of events may be swayed to support one side at the detriment of the other, setting good people unknowingly against their personal morality.
Another example of how the large cast builds and strengthens is in personalizing the events. The war is not a matter of the past or history. What Saxe did to a ship of refugees Tom had been flying still haunts Tom. Zac’s life is worthless (in his mind) due to his injuries. Ellen lost her family and sees finding love again as a betrayal.
We experience these consequences with the characters. It’s not a roll call of endless strangers, but rather connected to people we have bonded with. The treaty might be signed, but the war wages on in its impact.
I found Tom’s crew a little naive, possibly because I had more information than they did thanks to the opposing viewpoints working to undermine their operation. The way the situation is set up made me suspicious of everything, though, and there are many vulnerabilities the crew takes on faith. That said, I also found myself too hopeful at times, buying into their optimism.
Don’t think this is a grim war novel full of bad choices, disaster, and desperation, though. There are moments of lightness, love, and connection tied in. Losses from the war bring the mourners together as much as dwelling on the past traps them in it. Actions have consequences, sometimes deadly and other times amusing, and several characters have stunning insights that are delightful on many levels. Teasing between various family members and coworkers also deepens our understanding of the characters.
The novel comes to life in a universe with more depth than even the characters are aware of. Glimpses of how the diverse cultures work were fascinating while the tech often sprang from what we now know is possible though we haven’t yet succeeded in harnessing those elements. Nor is the tech always helpful as the characters struggle to adapt to some innovations the Dowl have made.
Ultimately, this is a strong novel with a lot to share. It is peopled with a broad, interesting cast, and tells something new while throwing a reflection on modern times. I was engaged with the characters, bought into their struggles, and wanted better futures for them. The universe fascinated me, especially with the similarities and differences between species, both in culture and ability. The hints of technology like ours, along with different possible paths to develop them, intrigued me.
This is science fiction as it should be: a commentary on where things are going wrong and offering possibilities to change that direction. The cast represents people of many races, abilities, and backgrounds, nor is it a simple split between alien species and human. Space Train offers an intense, deep read. Be prepared to engage…far more than just the engines.