Judging for the Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (SPSFC) has matched me with a few books outside my wheelhouse, but T. A. Bruno’s debut In the Orbit of Sirens promised to be an exception. A novel featuring high-stakes exploration with a first contact storyline that didn’t just devolve into reflexive war is exactly the sort of story I enjoy. Add the glowing reviews from its first-round judges, and I was very excited to get to this one.
In the Orbit of Sirens opens in two timelines, the first following a young doctor on an expedition to find a cure for the lung-lock disease that plagues all who breathe the air on the planet that humanity sees as its last hope, and the second following a mechanic whose family is among the last to attempt the 300-year journey to this new home where people may be free of the terrifying enemy bent on exterminating them. There’s a lot going on in part one! But the timelines soon merge into a story of a growing human colony building a relationship with its cagey alien neighbors, and both trying to survive the mysterious power responsible for acts of horrific destruction among both peoples.
So that’s contact with three non-human intelligences—two of which are actively malevolent—plus a disease that prevents you from breathing. That’s a lot of things that can kill you! Throw in a romantic subplot and a training subplot when one of the leads tries to join a scouting group, and…well, like I said, there’s a lot going on here. And each individual subplot is written in a way that draws the reader in and invests them in the results. So far, so good. But the multiplicity of storylines also leads to some structural problems that prevent the novel as a whole from reaching the level of its parts.
The novel’s first section—roughly 100 pages—feels like an extended, action-packed prologue. Both initial perspective characters are thrust into mortal danger before I’d had time to get confident on their names, but the life-or-death space battle in chapter two doesn’t directly shape the plot so much as serve as a terrifying specter looming over humanity’s history. It’s the sort of thing you might expect in either a flashback or a prologue followed by a time skip—an event that the reader needs to understand but one that doesn’t really progress the narrative. And while I found the first example to be the most egregious, the book continues trying to do justice to so many subplots that the pacing suffers and the overall story can feel a little bit disjointed.
But even with the structural issues arresting some momentum, the constituent stories were intriguing enough to maintain interest in the novel as a whole, to the point that I felt In the Orbit of Sirens was only one or two pieces away from joining my favorites of the first two rounds of SPSFC. The romantic subplot and the training arc might not have broken new ground, but they were engaging and made it easy to cheer for the leads. And the main antagonist brought malevolent powers that flirted with genuine terror. With a little bit more evocative prose, the story could’ve been atmospheric enough to make inconsistent pacing nothing more than a minor annoyance. But while the prose was professional and easy to read, it didn’t quite manage to sustain the atmosphere, and there were a few tics that hindered my immersion. Add a big finish that brought some closure but left a few threads dangling and didn’t really elevate the story over what came before, and In the Orbit of Sirens felt like a story with tons of potential that it didn’t quite hit.
Overall, there’s plenty to like here in an easy-to-read story with plenty of action and intrigue, but an overstuffed structure with inconsistent pacing keeps it from really being a favorite. It delivers in spades on the battles, both physical and psychological, but it doesn’t quite sustain the creeping dread that could’ve made it an excellent work of sci-fi horror, and the diplomatic first contact plot takes a backseat to more immediate danger. There are plenty of good ingredients here, but for me they just didn’t totally come together.
Recommended if you like: exploration stories with danger around every corner.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Self-Published and Weird Ecology, and it also involves both Mental Health and Family Matters and is written by an Author Who Uses Initials.
Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.
SPSFC Score: 6.5/10 for my personal score. We will await results from the other judges before announcing an official team score.